Curanto is a Chilean Meat Feast Cooked in a Dirt Pit

I broke vegetarianism to revel in 'curanto,' a Chilean feast of meats, seafood, and potato dumplings wrapped in leaves and cooked in a fire pit.

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Apr 30 2015, 3:00pm

Chiloé is an archipelago of lush islands off the southwestern coast of Chile with a history as dense and volatile as its cloud patterns. I am traveling to the north shore of Isla Grande on a mission to try curanto, a traditional dish wherein red meat, seafood, and potatoes are cooked underground in a wood-fire pit coated with leaves. The Lonely Planet calls it "Chiloé's gastronomic bombshell," which, after trying it myself, I will confirm. It is a bombshell, indeed.

After a weeklong scavenger hunt looking for a person or place that would cook up the stuff, I enlist the help of my hostel staff and land upon a friendly-seeming home restaurant in Ancud: El Meson Chilote.

Luis Melipichun Avendaño, my soon-to-be culinary spirit guide, greets me one Sunday morning with a firm handshake and a head covered in ash. I catch him in the midst of stage one of the curanto process: firing up the stone-filled pit using flaming chunks of wood. (The word "curanto," after all, translates to "hot rock.")

All photos by the author

All photos by the author

With impressive speed he extracts the wood, tossing each part into a rusted wheelbarrow—a helpful, albeit inanimate, sous chef. A melange of ingredients are then added to the ditch: nalca leaves, a mountain of mussels, handfuls of clams, and whole potatoes. I ask if I can lend any help. He raises his hands in a quick gesture, revealing calloused, black-pitched palms. I take this for a no.

Within seconds Luis is adding an onslaught of new ingredients: chicken breasts, slabs of pork, and (gasp!) strings of chorizo. His approach is loose, admirably casual, and involves zero utensils or timers. Atop this assemblage of meat and seafood, Luis places a damp towel.

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Then come the potato dumplings. Pre-rolled gobs of milcao and chapalele dough—made of potatoes, flour, and water—are plucked from a tray and added to the food heap. Luis pats them down with his bare hands, covering them with another towel. In a snap, he has tugged at the all-encompassing nalca leaves and the whole chabang is wrapped. It looks like a funny vegetal knapsack. It should be noted that this whole process has taken Luis a remarkable one to two minutes to complete—and he is doling out a history lesson about languages spoken on Chiloé all the while.

The last step involves rectangular pieces of tierra—literally, earth—that are thrown onto the pit, trapping any escaping smoke and insulating all the ingredients. The smell is absolutely acrid. If a copywriter were to describe this odor and translate into a marketable scent, it would go something like "Herby Earth Funk" or "Muskier Than Thou Musk."

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Reading my mind, Luis asks if I want to step outside for a breath of fresh air. We walk to the lakeside (which is literally 20 steps from the curanto den) to admire the swimming ducks and his neighbors' lumberyards. Live ducks hardly seem like a sight to see after witnessing such diversified animal carnage, but happy with this change of environment and the oxygen upgrade, I indulge.

Luis then serves up some meaty historical bits, which I find as layered and difficult to digest as the meal itself. For the sake of brevity, I direct questions to Luis's background: his father's side is Chono and his mother's is Portuguese. When I ask if he speaks Portuguese though, he laughs, saying that that was too many generation ago to count. Still, he identifies strongly with both sides.

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As legend has it, around 5000 BCE, the Chono people—a nomadic group of hunter-gatherers—began practicing curanto. They were highly skilled at hunting seals, fish, and birds, as well as harvesting shellfish. When the Chonos started mixing with the Mapuche people, a new mestizo culture emerged. This mestizo group tilled the land and cultivated potatoes, of which I am told there are 342 different kinds on the Isla Grande alone.

We return to the den, and Luis unpacks the now-charred knapsack, tossing aside its meat-infused leaves.

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Since the process of making curanto results in an absurd amount of food, a large group is typically required for the full demonstration. So, the week leading up to this event, I had become a sort of curanto evangelist, trying (usually in vain) to convince other backpackers to join me on this epic culinary adventure. And as testament to my lackluster persuasion skills, the eating buddy I end up with came by his own volition.

After learning that I've been vegetarian for six-odd years and that I was raised in a Jewish family that kept kosher, he starts calling me a curanto-vore. I like this—it absolves me of any moral or religious guilt—and I decide he is a fantastic carnivorous cohort.

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We enter the restaurant and within six minutes, the curanto from the ground is translated into curanto on dishes. Magical. Nothing has been mixed together or is even remotely stew-like, which is reassuring.

I start the meal with chicken. It acts like a gateway meat, guiding my way to more unfamiliar terrain. It slips right of the bone and the texture is familiar, which is comforting. With each sliced-off niblet I gain more confidence, and eventually I endeavor into the land of chorizo, pork, clams, and mussels. My partner-in-curanto is gleefully enjoying his pork and glancing at the bounty of shells in front of us.

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I am impressed with how well-cooked and not overdone each meat is, considering rocks and leaves were their only heating agents. The pork is chewy, and so salty it's unbelievable that no condiments were added. Its edges are crystallized and give off an appealing glazed sheen. Bones are the real challenge here, and as a novice pork eater I find the task of extracting edible parts quite daunting. A more committed porker might suck meat straight off the bone, but for this formerly kosher eater, several bites are more than enough. (A tide of Jewish guilt hath risen, and is difficult to put at bay.)

Two generous portions of clams and mussels are doled out to us, and if I wasn't overwhelmed before, I certainly am now. But then I discover how fun it is to crack open the shells and dissect their insides. I start pretending I'm Amelie, taking joy in each crack of the creme brulée—err, sea meat—and the contrast of textures is wondrous.

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The insides of the clams are charred (which I initially took for its natural coloring.) Surprisingly, I enjoy the mussels most, finding them a light antidote to the other, heartier foods in this dish. The texture of the mussels is almost like a duck pâté.

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At first the potatoes—papas nativas—seem unnecessary, but soon I find them to be a much-needed palate cleanser. They effectively balance out the conflicting meat flavors on my tongue, and for this, I am grateful. The potatoes themselves have a storied history—in the 19th century, following the Chilean War of Independence from Spain, there was wide-sweeping poverty and a dramatic flour shortage. To feed their families, Chilota women invented a new bread that required little flour and a plethora of potatoes: hence the birth of chapalele and milcao dumplings.

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On my last afternoon in Ancud, I walk to an amazing vista with 360 degree views. To the north, I can make out an ominous-looking gray cloud, which my cohort confirms is the recently-erupted volcano Calbulco. In the other direction I see little trails of smoke billowing out from the countryside. I imagine someone, somewhere, is cooking up a curanto.