Today’s article takes us far south down into South America right down to the land of the poets, Chile. Let’s take a look at the Mapuche Indians, a group of indigenous people who have inhabited parts of Chile and Argentina for many centuries before the colonists. They are known for their rich cultural heritage filled with diverse ancient customs. Particularly interesting are their gastronomical traditions and the rich variety of dishes and condiments that they use. The Mapuche are also well known for their healthy country lifestyle and longevity which is in part due to their simple lifestyle and diet of non-processed foods.
A look at Mapuche gastronomy and a glance at the traditions and customs of the Mapuche people especially in terms of diet.
Merkén and Mapuche Cooking
The Mapuche pride themselves in a complex societal structure different from the current western one. Their use of traditional doctors or machi as they are called in Mapundungun (the language of the Mapuche people) is still prevalent today. Although many customs have sadly started disappearing gradually especially due to the current younger generation’s desire to keep up to date with the latest technology and traditional methods slowly becoming less popular. As a result in recent years the Chilean government has started increasing measures to preserve and protect this array of traditions. There have been many events to promote both the language and the culture within Chile. It is also worth noting that the Mapuche people are a strong and independent people and were the last to lose their independence in Latin America in the latter part of the 19th century. This is extremely significant because it shows a great pride for their culture and may be one of the reasons their culture has survived so much compared to many of the then surrounding cultures which sadly died out.
One specific area of Mapuche culture that is of particular interest is their diet. Let’s take a look at certain Mapuche foods and their possible benefits. There are a variety of different Chilean herbs and spices and one of the most commonly used spices is merkén. This is a spice comprised of smoked chilli pepper which in Spanish is called ‘cacho de cabra’. This spice has a very strong and woody smell to it heightening your senses with only one small sniff. It gives you the feeling that you are walking through a dense forest being revived with the rapid blend of smells. It is usually mixed with coriander and salt (depending on the desired quantity). Sometimes however people also add paprika and oregano to the blend.
Now it is important to note that most Chileans do not have a strong affinity for eating chilli at every meal unlike in some cultures however it is common to use as a condiment from time to time. It is an excellent addition to pebre (a traditional Chilean salsa) and can be eaten with various meat dishes too. Merkén apart from tasting incredible and for someone who doesn’t particularly like chillies it is extremely addictive also has many health benefits.
Merkén is extremely rich in antioxidants and vitamin C and a little every now and then can be extremely beneficial to the body preventing disease and increasing immunity. In merkén there is also a high level of potassium which helps to regulate blood pressure and heart rate. Chilli is highly concentrated so it is only necessary to eat a small amount of merkén for your body to benefit from the effects.
Having spent some time in Chile meeting Mapuche Indians and those who have the knowledge of the culture I have seen and tasted the benefits of merkén along with many other Mapuche dishes for myself. In the Chilean supermarkets there are many different brands however the most natural is that bought from local Mapuche sellers living in small Mapuche towns in the Andes Mountains.
If you have the pleasure of visiting Chile then it is my recommendation to visit the town of Currarehue where you will find many small shops selling this popular spice and many other popular Chilean dishes. Finally, if you cannot visit Chile then a good substitute recipe is to blend 2 teaspoons of dried oregano, 2 teaspoons of cayenne pepper, 1 teaspoon smoked paprika and 1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds and a pinch of salt.
Gastronomical culture and history is just as exciting as studying people themselves for it is through their diet that you can discover how the people lived. It is a great encouragement that the Chilean government has started to recognise the great significance of the Mapuche culture so those who have Mapuche heritage, foreigners and Chileans of different heritage can all come together to learn and benefit from a wonderful and fascinating culture.