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We Planned a Trip to Chile Just for This Dish

By Julie H. Case

12.19.19

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A local Chilote man prepares curanto, a traditional seafood dish that’s cooked in the ground and unique to Chiloé Island.

Photo by Mauricio Quevedo/Shutterstock

A local Chilote man prepares curanto, a traditional seafood dish that’s cooked in the ground and unique to Chiloé Island.

Our writer travels to the ends of the Earth—again and again—for the seafood-based dish called curanto.

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On windswept Chiloé Island, roughly 25 miles west of Chile’s mainland, handmade signs stud verdant hillsides, pointing their way to rustic outdoor kitchens with their tantalizing, native foods. “Quincho,” they read, in scrawl and block print, leading toward these huts that plume smoke into the salt-licked air. Here, quincho is as much a place—a sort of covered outdoor kitchen designed for open-fire cooking—as it is a way of eating. Quincho asado al palo means there will be spit-roasted meat. Quincho curanto—or, simply, curanto—promises the seafood dish unique to Chiloé, full of mussels and clams and cooked in a wok-shaped pit, just below ground. It is curanto that I’ve traveled so far to find.

I first came upon curanto back in 2001. Then, as a tourist with my eye on the country’s booming vinicultural industry, I was eager to sample carménère. The French grape had been wiped out by phylloxera in the early 1860s and was thought for more than 100 years to be extinct—only to be found alive and thriving in Chilean vineyards in 1994, masquerading as merlot. (Today, it is among the country’s signature grapes.)

I tasted my way through the then-tiny wineries in and around Santiago, straying farther and farther south, into the country’s Los Lagos region—or, Lake District—until soon, chasing adventure, I’d landed beyond wine country and in the Chiloé archipelago off the country’s Pacific Coast. This is where I first encountered the delicious and detour-worthy curanto dish, and I’ve been returning to Chiloé, the only place it is truly made, time and again to indulge in it since.

Now, it’s a sunny December day, and I’m back in Chiloé, on a group trip dedicated to learning about the evolution of the country’s wine industry. Instead of standing in vineyards, though, we’re gathered in a field outside of the island’s capital city, Castro, at a minga. A minga is a peculiar Chiloéan house-moving ceremony where oxen drag a home across rolling logs, then deposit it at a new, somehow more preferable location. A bevy of the country’s top winemakers are cheering the oxen on and also awaiting the dish bubbling in the earth nearby: curanto. Traditionally, while the Chilote neighbors help move the house, the homeowner cooks curanto as a token of gratitude.

This particular home’s owner, Chilote chef Alejandro Soto, has been building his curanto for hours now. Earlier in the day, he dug a shallow hole in the ground and built a fire. Once the wood had grayed and begun to glow, he’d layered large, round rocks, scavenged from the nearby hillsides, atop the embers.

Fresh from its earthen oven, curanto offers a hearty meal to eager diners who have come some way to try it.

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“The rocks always come from the hillsides,” Soto admonishes, “never the sea.” Rocks gathered from along the water’s edge never truly absorb enough heat to cook on, he explains.

Once the rocks are glowing, dozens of bivalves are added. In the olden days, these would have been collected by the curanto-maker himself. Soto, who runs a sort of pop-up restaurant from a quincho nearby, explains that today, however, most come from the nearby fishing village, Chonchi. Barehanded, Soto layers palm-size clams, the hardest shelled of the mollusks in this dish, along the stones. Next come the enis macha, the razor clams that proliferate in the waters here, and finally the mussels. Soon the shellfish are piled on so deeply, they completely obscure the stones.

Then, using the viridescent leaves of the pengue plant, which grows wild across the island, the chef builds a barrier—a kind of rim—between the bivalves and the freshly turned earth encircling the fire. The rhubarb-like pengue’s barbed stem, known as nalca, juts sturdily from the ground; its Jurassic-size leaves are tailor-made for curanto.

After the shellfish are down, pork, chicken leg quarters, and various types of locally made sausages are positioned on the mound in layers, followed by potatoes, until finally it is time for the handmade gnocchi-like potato-and-flour dumplings known as chapalele. Some curanto-builders place the chapalele directly atop the meat and seafood. Soto uses ferns, which he has pulled from the edge of this field, as a kind of barrier separating the meat from the dumplings.

When, at last, the dish has been assembled from clam to dumpling, the pengue return. The chef and crew layer on the leaves, strategically overlapping them, until the entire fire and all of its contents are obscured. To further trap the heat, they cover the mound with dirt and sod cut from the nearby field. Dinner has disappeared from view. Now begins the few hours of waiting. And the minga.

Curanto is an ancient dish, and in Chile, it’s native to the Chiloé Archipelago, where seafood abounds. Similar dishes can also be found throughout Polynesia—including on Chile’s Easter Island—with slight variations. On Easter Island, for instance, the rocks are volcanic, and banana leaves replace the pengue.

Ferns or fernless, sausage added or not, on Chiloé, every curanto-maker seems to hew to his or her own traditions. Near the sea in Ancud, on the north end of Chiloé, at the family-style restaurant Mesón Chilote, chef Luis Melipichun builds his curanto not in a field but beneath the thatched roof of a quincho. He places his chapalele directly atop the meat and seafood; he also soaks his nalca leaves in a tub of water before curtaining them along the curanto.

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I’ve arrived very early for a family-style dinner and my second chance at tucking in to curanto, in hopes of gaining more insight from Melipichun on the traditional dish. Now as I stand beside him, pulling nalca leaves from the water and helping place them around the curanto, he regales me with the myth of La Pincoya, the dancing female water spirit of the Chiloé seas, who would tell the people what kind of harvest they could expect from the ocean. When she danced facing inland, the harvest would be poor; when she danced facing the sea, fish and seafood would abound.

When the story is over and the curanto is built, Melipichun covers it all with a final layer of nalca leaves, followed by a peaty layer of sod. Beneath it, in the chapalele steam, the sausage drips its fat onto the cooking chicken. Clams bubble in their shells, mussels begin to yawn, and while we wait, a thread of steam wisps its way into the seaside air.

Finally, the fire is stripped of its sod and pengue, and the massive dish is unveiled. We move inside to a table where the chef serves deep bowls filled with clams and mussels, meat, and chapalele. I duck in, spearing clams on my fork, then dip dense chapalele in a bright homemade pico de gallo salsa. I chase mussels around my bowl and sip an austere sauvignon blanc from Chile’s Leyda Valley far to the north. La Pincoya has been good to the curanto maker; she has been good to me. Nearly 20 years on, I’ve perhaps learned at last the art of building curanto, all without losing the magic of eating it fresh from a Chiloé fire.

Curanto is based on bivalves, and the dish comes loaded with mussels and clams.

Where to Eat

Throughout the year, and especially during the peak travel season of South American summer (January through April), curanto can be found in quinchos across the island, as well as in many local Chiloé restaurants, such as Meson Chilote in Ancud and Restaurant Travesia in Castro. For a local experience, follow the signs that pop up along the roadsides. Or go with a local: Guides like Magdalena Contreras, of tour company Chiloé Natural, can deliver authentic dining options.

Where to Stay

On Chiloé, traditional communal lodging in hospadajes has largely been replaced by Airbnbs, higher-end hostels, and increasingly upscale resorts, such as Tierra Chiloé. In Castro, Enjoy Chiloé offers midrange, modern rooms with stunning South Pacific inlet overlooks. Or check in to any of the numerous smaller hotels, such as Palafito 1326, a boutique property set in one of the brightly colored houses on stilts—palafitos—that rise above the inlet.

Getting There

LATAM airlines offers two-hour flights between Santiago, Chile, and Castro, Chiloé. The north end of the island is roughly a two-hour car or bus ride (ferry transfer included) from the Puerto Montt airport, on the mainland.

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