The day we landed in Santiago, Chile, Evan and I went out to lunch. I was confident I’d order food proficiently, after studying Spanish for years. The café’s chalkboard menu listed sanguiches, ensaladas, and jugos naturales. I translated these three easily for Evan, sandwiches, salads and fresh juices. Then came two words that stumped me. They were combined into one mysterious item, ave palta. I pointed to them on the chalkboard, “I have no idea what either of those words mean!” Evan shrugged. He didn’t mind. I did. The waiter stepped up with his pad and paper. After greeting him, I asked about palta. He began to describe that it grew on a tree, was green, had a big seed…
I guessed, “aguacate,” he nodded. “¿Y, qué tipo de ave?” I asked. (and What kind of bird?)
He almost fell over laughing. “Chicken, of course!”
“Of course,” I said. We ordered two ave paltas; half an avocado filled with chicken and mayonnaise. A new favorite was born. Our twelve months in Chile was the best avocado year of my life. In 2002, prices were around 900 Chilean pesos ($2) for two kilos of paltas (4.4 pounds!) in el Mercado Central. I felt fortunate to eat an avocado a day.
During our 2 pm lunch break from our Spanish classes, often we would eat cazuela; Chilean chicken soup, meat still on the bones, cobs of choclo (corn) broken in two pieces, zucchini, chunks of squash, quinoa (in the Andes Mountains of Northern Chile version), cilantro and bay leaf. This hearty stew is Chile’s national dish. The most popular salad was ensalada a la chilena; tomato, cilantro and onion salad. When we were in a hurry, we ate quick lunches of empanadas; pastry pockets with chicken, potatoes, hard boiled eggs, raisins, green olives, cumin, and oregano. At dinner, we often ate the plentiful, fresh fish from the long Chilean coast. Corvina, Chilean sea bass was particularly delicious. I enjoyed congrio, even once I found out it was eel. For special occasions: like the September Independence celebrations, there was pastel de choclo, the best translation may be corn and beef casserole.
In Chile, the soft drink alternative was fantastic, the jugos naturales. Fresh juices were made to order at most restaurants. Each had a noisy juicer that produced delicious results. There is no frozen juice in Chile. I asked at several grocery stores and the clerks would shake their heads solemnly. “No, señorita, it loses all its goodness after fifteen minutes.” I had not heard that idea before and I wondered if it were true. Chileans are correct; studies show levels of vitamin A and C can be lower for frozen juices compared with fresh ones.
When we got back to the US, we bought a juicer and on the cold winter days of our second winter that year we made cazuela de ave (bird stew). Here’s my recipe. Which fowl? Chicken, of course.
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