As chefs around the world try to emerge from Europe's shadow and champion local flavors, Chile is offering one model of what that revolution might look like
In Curarrehue, it's usually raining. The misty green town in southern Chile is surrounded on all sides by ancient forests cut with glacial rivers and massive, active volcanoes. This being a rural logging town, all construction is done with local timber so that the clusters of homes, as they draw near, are almost indistinguishable from the woods.
Anita Epulef wraps her head with a brightly printed scarf and moves easily around her open kitchen, pulling clay teacups from the shelves. She's a chef and teacher—and a fabulous host. Within a minute of meeting her, I'm drinking pleasantly bitter tea, dipping piñones, soft pine nuts as long as my pinky finger, into a sweet and sour rose-hip syrup, and breaking tortilla rescoldo, an unleavened bread cooked by the residual heat of the oven's hot stones.
Anita's restaurant, Cocina Mapu Iyagl, focuses on local ingredients and traditional techniques. She's a champion of what makes Chile's culinary scene truly special: its wild, native products, many of which exist here and nowhere else in the world. Like Anita, most of the local population is Mapuche, Chile's largest indigenous group, which accounts for just under 5 percent of the country's population. They've been here long enough to have won battles against the Incas, and to have maintained their territory throughout the Spanish empire's rule. It wasn't until the late 1800s that their ancestral lands were made part of Chile in a violent military occupation.
Soon after the Mapuche lost their independence, the region around Anita's restaurant commercialized. By the 1930s, nearby Lake Villarica was transforming into a glamorous holiday destination with powdery slopes, water sports, and hot springs. For Anita, leading Mapuche cooking classes and cooking for tourists who venture down south (and press groups, in my case), is a way to move forward while honoring her past.
Along with Anita, there is Alejandro, the local lonko, or community leader, a twinkly-eyed man with a big round belly and thick, graying eyebrows. He pulls a blue handkerchief from his pocket and uses it to push down on the barbed wire across the road from his house, allowing Anita to lead us into the wilderness. His grandfather lived as a nomadic herder until the 1930s, when the area's logging industry took off and the government moved the Mapuche community into permanent homes. Alejandro's family keeps a few long-haired pigs and two impeccably organized greenhouses. The rest of their food, they forage. "We take only what we need for today," he says, snapping a plant up from the ground. Coligue is cone-shaped, sheathed like corn. Alejandro peels its spike-tipped leaves to reveal the pale shoot inside. He picks nalca, with green leaves open like giant palms to the sun. The plant has nubby stems, deep red at the base. To Alejandro's amusement, I chew on a raw root, sour as rhubarb, and spit it back out.
In Anita's kitchen, we dip the coligue shoots in a super-sharp lemon-cilantro dressing. We drizzle uniformly cut boiled potatoes and local mushrooms with chili oil. We rip up soft, just-fried bread and use it to spoon up pebre, a smooth salsa with an aji pepper base. The soup, with a broth of toasted pine nut flour and shallots, is its own kind of flavor puzzle. Anita lists the handful of ingredients that went in and I just can't get my head around its layers and layers of flavor. The piñones coated with caramelized onions are stunning and soul-satisfying—Anita says they begin to harvest these nuts only after the trees have matured for 80 years. I say it's worth the wait. Everything here is cooked carefully, seasoned precisely, and presented beautifully.