Monday, February 14, 2011

Curanto: The Traditional Shellfish Dish of the Islands of Chiloé, Chile

Sim at a dockside restaurant on Chiloé Island, Chile ready to dig into a steaming plate of curanto and a cool bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc (photo by Luis Bastardo)

For the uninitiated, Chile is one of the bright, rising stars of the South American countries. Its up and coming economy is stable yet steadily growing, supported by strong agricultural and mining industries, namely copper, iron, beans, sweet potatoes, beets, wheat and my personal favorites, wine and seafood. The Chilean wine business has exploded in the last 15 years and the country's wines continue to exceed all expectations. At the 2004 Berlin Wine Tasting Competition, Chilean wines took first and second place in a blind taste test; in the 2005 tasting, they took five of the top seven places. Most prevalent are the outstanding yet reasonably priced Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs, which pair perfectly with delicious Chilean seafood. 

A typical curanto: mussels, clams, fish, potatoes, sausages and chapalele (photo bu Luis Bastardo)  

There is an extensive fish and shellfish farming culture in Chile, so fresh seafood is widely available and generally inexpensive. Most regions have a typical seafood or shellfish dish; on the islands of Chiloé, it is curanto, a type of shellfish bake that also includes fish, sausage, potatoes and a type of doughy potato bread called chapalele. The meal is usually accompanied by a bowl of broth for dipping or sipping and a bottle of chilled Chilean white wine. it is similar to a New England clam bake in that it is traditionally prepared in a hole in the ground near or on the beach, over stones heated by a bonfire, each layer of seafood, meat and vegetables separated by the gigantic leaves of a local edible plant known locally as nalca or Chilean Rhubarb, then all is covered by a top layer of sod and earth. Today it is more practically prepared at home in a pressure cooker or on a grill.      

Luis trying out the local freshly-shucked oysters on Chiloé (photo by Simone Cannon)

Some food historians date the origin of curanto to between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago when indigenous groups such as the Mapuche inhabited the islands. The word "curanto" derives from the Mapuche word "kurantu" meaning “stony ground”. The original ingredients probably also variously included snails, scallops, abalone, razor clams, pudú ( a type of small deer), nutria (a medium sized rodent), pork, lamb, sea birds, sea lions and other marine life, depending on availability and season. The curanto was normally reserved for feasts or celebrations and while waiting for the meal to cook, guests danced a folk dance called the seguidilla, accompanied by harps and guitars. The usual beverages served were aguardiente (Spanish for "firewater" because of its extremely high alcoholic content, between 20%-60%) and chicha, a fermented drink made from maize (corn), apple or manioc. Today, the accompanying beverage is much more likely to be a crisp Chilean white wine.

Preparing curanto the traditional way (photo courtesy of

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