Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Pastel de Choclo (Corn Pie) Mystery

Today, according to an (unscientific) survey conducted by a Chilean internet magazine, pastel de choclo is Chile’s favorite home cooked meal, favored by 21% of respondents.[1]
Among the most Chilean of dishes, Pastel de choclo is a pie filled with beef and onions, a piece of chicken, an olive and a quarter boiled egg, and covered with dough made of fresh corn. (Choclo is Andean Spanish for ear of corn, from the Quechan chocollo.)  It is always on the menu of Chilean restaurants serving “typical foods,” and appears frequently in workers' lunchrooms, and neighborhood cafes.  It is sold in Independence Day celebration booths, supermarkets, bakeries, and by sidewalk vendors.  It was the first meal my future wife served me when I came to Santiago, and surely would be much appreciated by hungry mourners when I depart. 

Pastel de chocloI (or pastel de maiz—standard Spanish for “corn pie”) is mestizo cooking at its most straightforward:  it combines the filling for Spanish empanadas with a crust of the corn dough used to make humitas, the indigenous tamales of the Andean cultures.  And like humitas and empanadas it must be very old and very Chilean, surely originating, as Chilean anthropologist Sonia Montecino Aguirre suggests, at the hands of Mapuche cooks in the kitchens of the Spanish conquerors.[2]

But does it?

Chilean novelist Isabel Allende has it a little differently, as fiction allows. Her heroine Inéz Suárez, Pedro de Valdivia’s mistress and companion in the conquest of Chile, invents empanadas with a corm crust—which can hardly be anything other than pastel de choclo—in Cuzco, Peru, in 1539.
I had a clay oven built in the patio and Calatlina and I begin making empanadas. Wheat flour was very dear, but we learned how to make them from corn meal. They never had time to cool after they came from the oven because the smell spread throughout the neighborhood and people came running to buy them.  ….The strong aroma of meat, fried onion, cumin and baked dough soaked into my skin so deeply that I have never lost it.  I will die smelling like an empanada.[3] 
Allende seems to have gotten one part right; Chile’s iconic pastel de choclo appears to have a Peruvian origin; or at least the earliest mention of pastel de choclo comes from Peru.  Peruvian historian Ricardo Palma tells of a remarkable banquet served in Cuzco in 1608:
…the Dominicans gave a banquet for the reconciled [Augustinians and Franciscans], But what a banquet!  There was theological soup, fried giblets, stuffed turkey, rabbit carapulcrta  [stewed with peanuts], lamb stew, pipian and locro of pigs feet,  meat in adobo [spicy marinade] St. Peter and St. Paul (beans with meat, spices and vinegar) and pastel de choclo… [4]
And since it existed in colonial Peru, one would expect to find pastel de choclo in colonial Chile, but it isn’t mentioned, as far as I can tell, in any of the colonial sources.  The earliest cl mention I’ve encountered is from Claudio Gay, French botanist and naturalist who explored Chile in the 1830s. Writing about the food and drink of central Chilean peasants he describes a meat pie—clearly a less elegant version than served at the Dominicans’ banquet--that today we would call a pastel de choclo:
….in the great fiestas, and above all at weddings… chicha, young wine, or wine itself accompanies the pies so well enjoyed and made of picadillo [hash] or pino [“filling” in the Mapuche language] of mutton, mixed sometimes with chicken, and covered with a layer of corn ground with sugar and fat, and seasoned as always with a lot of chili and other condiments. These pies were also made with green beans, onions, olives, etc., and were cooked the same day to be eaten hot. They were seldom missing from the table on a day of celebration.[5]
Nor does this pie appear in 19th century accounts of travelers in Chile, who often describe the meals, humble or elegant, they were served.  Chilean historian Martín Lara, who evidently is also interested in such things, notes: 
It is interesting that in the diary of Mary Graham, as in the rest of the books and memoirs consulted, the classic Chilean foods of the present such as pastel de choclo or empanadas do not appear.  …In contrast to the empanadas and pastels, [is] the constant and repeated reference made to charquicán as a very common dish on the tables of Chileans of all social statuses.[6] 
The next instance occurs some 40 years later, in 1877, when Chilean writer and politician Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna mentions pastel de maiz in a context that also suggest that it is a dish of the common people.  He writes: 
We don’t know if modern presidents of this corn country still like corn, like Alonso de Rivera [governor of Chile, 1601-05] did, or if they serve humitas, pastel de maiz, or even the humble chuchoca [corn meal] at their tables.[7] 
So, pastel de choclo (or maiz) surely exists in 19th century Chile, at least among campesinos, even if  the 19th century cookbooks do not include it, not even the comprehensive 1882 New Kinchen Manual containing 377 selected dishes from the cuisines of France, Spain, Chile, England and Italy, which devotes a chapter to empanadas and meat pies.[8]   Nor is it in Palma Alvarado’s fine study of the food and drink of Santiagueños in the late 19th century.[9]  And most surprisingly, Chilean historian Eugenio Pereira Salas has no mention of pastel de choclo in his classic Notes for the History of Chilean Cuisine, first published in 1943.  I wonder why.
It’s inescapable:  Chile’s famous pastel de choclo didn’t achieve its mythic status until the well into the 20th century. And it may have come via Peru, Bolivia or Argentina where it was common.[10]

Pastel de Choclo recipes

The earliest recipe I have found comes, not from Chile, but from an 1890 Argentine cookbook, where it is called pastel de choclo Sucre [Bolivia] style:

Pastel de choclo a la sucrense 
Grate the corn, and grind very well, on a grinding stone or mortar. Add a cup of milk, stir well and strain through a thin cloth, squeezing hard to extract the juice. Return the corn to the mortar, add another cup of milk, grind again, and strain. To this corn juice, add white corn flour or cornstarch a spoonful at a time, stirring as you pour the flour, and beat until thickened. Season with salt and a little sugar, at most a tablespoon or two, to bring out the natural sweetness of the corn. Melt a large lump of butter, and mix with the dough, stirring and tossing, until the butter has been incorporated. If the dough has thickened more than usual; add a little milk, and always stirring, cook over a moderate fire. Test often, so by the taste you will know when it is cooked and ready. Then remove it from the heat, add butter, stir and cool. When cold, add four egg yokes, and stir to incorporate into the dough.
Butter the bottom of a heat resistant ceramic dish and spread a layer of corn dough. On this place your filling; what ever kind you like, either of pieces of pigeon in seasoned marinade [adobo] or stewed, or with a hash seasoned with spices, raisins of Malaga, almonds and olives. Over the filling, symmetrically place slices of hard boiled eggs and olives. Cover the filling with another layer of corn dough and put in the oven.
When the surface of the cake has browned to a deep gold, it is done and should go directly from the oven to the table, because the hotter, the more delicious. Natalia R. Dorado (Cochab) [Cochabamba, Bolivia][11]

This interesting recipe, with its smooth dough, butter, raisins of Malaga, and almond is clearly from a social status well above that of Chilean peasants. It is probably the descendant of the Dominicans’ version of 1608, but it has some common elements to the earliest Chilean recipe I’ve found:  La Negrita Doddy’s 1911 recipe for pastel de maiz[12]  including eggs and sugar in the dough, a bottom as well as a top layer of corn dough, and raisins. 

Her pino, or filling, which is the same as for her empanadas, is very much like today's:
Cut an onion into a small dice, fry with fifty grams of lard; and when browned add double the quantity of roasted meat, also cut into small cubes, reserving the juice.  Brown, adding a tablespoon of flour, salt, the reserved meat juices and a cup [200 ml.] of broth.  After it has boiled, remove from the fire and add raisins, well washed and seeded, olives, a tablespoon of parsley, green or red chili, and allow to cool.  It is better prepared the day before.

Oddly, the first Chilean recipe I’ve fond that calls the dish pastel de choclo rather that … de maiz, uses only a top crust, and was published in the USA. Evidently by the 1920s it had become so popular that the US Embassy in Santiago submitted a recipe to appear among other classic Chilean dishes in the 1927 US Congressional Club Cook Book:  Favorite National and International Recipes.[13]  

The Congressional Club recipe, above, is a good one; a bit spicier than today’s most common version which doesn’t tend to include “red pepper” or tomato, but does include a piece of chicken.  For the standard Chilean recipe, the obvious source is the classic Chilean Cookbook, the 700 page La Gran Cocina Chilena (8th edition, 2000):

Pastel de Choclo

8 ears of corn [see note, below]
1 kg. ground beef
           1/2 kg. chicken pieces
6 onions
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon cumin
1/8 kg olives (5 oz)
1/8 kg raisins (ditto)
2 eggs
Salt and pepper
 Cut the onions into a small dice and fry, then add the ground meat, garlic, salt, pepper, and cumin, and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes.  Boil the chicken and cut into pieces.  Boil the eggs and cut into rounds.
Grate the corn and blend to a purée in a blender, add a little milk and fry the mixture in a little oil without burning it. 
 In an oven proof pan [or ideally in individual earthenware bowls of greda de Pomaire] place the pieces of chicken, separated, and the olives and raisins and over that the prepared filling and the egg rounds, topped by a layer of the corn purée, sprinkling a little sugar on top to aid in browning.  Bake in a hot over for 15 minutes.
 Note: The corn used is “field corn,” which is starchier than sweet corn and will cook into a thick paste.  See Chilean Corn (Choclo Chileno). If field corn is not available add corn meal to thicken the mixture. In Chilean supermarkets prepared corn dough for humitas and pastel de choclo is available frozen.

And the mystery?  The origins of the Chilean version of pastel de choclo are clearly humble; it was never a sophisticated dish like that of the Dominicans in 1608 or the Argentineans and Bolivians of 1890.  The dish Gay saw in the 1830s among rural peasants either arose spontaneously in rural Chile, as Sonia Montecino suggests, or arrived with some low level conquistador’s woman, to become the center piece in peasant fiestas and rural hacienda kitchens, but not in elegant homes.  And not in Santiago

At least not until the 1900s. Santiago’s population grew from 190,000 in 1882 to 406,500 in 1916,[14] due primarily to immigration from rural communities.  Among those rural migrants, we can suppose there was a woman; a descendant perhaps of Allende’s Inez, a strong independent woman.  She supported herself and her children by baking her rural specialty, pastel de choclo. She was a good cook and a better businesswoman; her pies sold well and soon she expanded her sales. Others followed and by the end of the first decade of the 20th century, pastel de choclo (or pastel de maiz as the gentry called it) had become popular; so popular that a recipe even appeared in the elegant French-influenced cookbook of La Negrita Doddy.   And from there it grew and grew.

A just-so story? 
“How the Pastel de Choclo became Chile’s favorite food.”

Sure, why not?

[1] Terra, Blog  El Terremoto se quedó con el premio Bicentenario.  2010-03-26.  On line at  The other dishes mentioned can be found by searching this blog.
[2] Montecino Aguirre, Sonia. 2004. Cocinas Mestizas de Chile: La Olla Deleitosa, Sonia Montecino Aguirre, Museo Chileno De Arte Precolombino.  On line at
[3] Allende, Isabel.  2007. Ines of My Soul: A Novel.  New York: Harper Perennial. p. 88.
[4] Palma, Ricardo.  1893. Tradiciones Peruanas Quinta Serie, III Agustinos y franciscanos Ricardo Palma, p 193. On line at as quoted in Arturo Jiménez Borja. 2008 Historia de la Gastronomía Peruana, part 6. On line at  (Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine,)
[5] Gay, Claudio. 1862-1865.  Agricultura, Tomo 1. París: En casa del autor; Chile: Museo de Historia Natural de Santiago, p. 162. On line at Later note: Juan Ignacio Molina writing in 1810 mentions that the dough for humitas was also used as for "cajas de pasteles,"  boxes (doughs?) for pies. Were these pasteles de choclo? See for the full quotation.
[6] Lara, Martín. 2007. Viaje y representación: el caso de Mary Graham, trayectoria de una viajera romántica. una aproximación a su mirada sobre chile.  Historia y geografía, Nº. 20, 2007, p. 171-204  on line at
[7] Vicuña Mackenna, Benjamín. 1877. De Valparaiso a Santiago, datos, impresiones, noticias, episodios de viaje: guía del Ferro-carril central. Serie Biblioteca de la Imprenta de la librería del Mercurio. (1a. Ed.), Imprenta de la Librería del Mercurio, de E. Undurraga y Cía., Santiago, Región Metropolitana de Santiago, Chile. On line at
[8] Available through Memoria Chilena’s digitized collection, on line at
[9] Palma Alvarado, Daniel. 2004 De apetitos y de cañas. El consumo de alimentos y bebidas en Santiago a fines del siglo XIX. P. 394.  Historia No 37, Vol. II, julio-diciembre 2004: 391-417 on line at
[10] As a search for “pastel de choclo” in 19th century Google Books in Spanish will confirm.
[11] Manuela Gorriti, Juana.  1890. Cocina Ecléctica. Primera edición, Buenos Aires, Félix Lajouane Editor (Librairie Générale). On line at
[12] Lawe.  1911 La negrita Doddy : nuevo libro de cocina, enseñanza completa de la cocina casera i parte de la gran cocina : con un apéndice de recetas útiles i de los deberes de una dueña de casa. Santiago : Soc. Impr. y Litogr., Universo. p.150 (filling) and  p.188 (dough) On line at
[13] Congressional Club Cook Book:  Favorite National and International Recipes.  The Congressional Club, 1927.  On line at http://schlar;lib.vt.euc/digital_books/pdf/TX715.C755.pdf  The embassy “recipe” actually said only to combine the filling from the empanada recipe with the corn dough from the humitas, both submitted by the wife of the Chilean military attaché.  The recipe here is a cut-and-paste from the originals.
[14] Chile, historical demographical data of the urban centers.  On line at

Monday, July 5, 2010

Eating Chilean Horse Meat

Señora Ercilla Curiche, Mapuche Kimche (wise elder) speaks about some of the food she ate as a child:
We ate meat; pork, lamb, horse.  But the meat wasn’t cooked like it is today; it was semi-cooked, people only cooked it a little and then ate it; especially horse meat.  This helped, providing more energy and taking greater advantage of this type of food, of meat.  Today the children haven’t had an opportunity to know these foods that we grandparents had. They only eat artificial foods, foods that contain a lot of sugar and that don’t promote physical or intellectual growth. This is the reality that today’s children encounter.[1]
For many the idea of eating horse meat is abhorrent, emotionally akin to eating the family pet.  But for much of the world (and until recently in England and the US) it is an accepted food; reminiscent perhaps of harder times, but accepted.  Among Chile’s Mapuche and others with rural origins it also engenders emotions; but here it means wholesome, natural and traditional, in contrast to the sugar, salt and chemical laden industrial foods that fill our supermarkets and children.

Horses have a long history as food in Europe and Asia, from the Paleolithic horse hunt pictured in France's Lascaux cave (left), to today’s horse meat butcher shops in Rome’s Testaccio Market (below right).

But horses, which evolved in the Americas before spreading to Asia, went extinct here 11 to 12,000 years ago and were absent until the Spanish reintroduced them.  The first horses came to Chile briefly in 1535, with the unsuccessful expedition of Diego de Almagro, but the first permanent herds owe their arrival to Pedro de Valdivia’s expedition in 1540.  By 1544, selective breeding conducted by Father Rodrigo Gonzalez Marmolejo began, leading to the development of the Chilean horse, the oldest registered breed in the Americas[2].

Lautaro (Pedro Subercaseaux)

 The Mapuche, the native people of south central Chile, first encountered horses in battle with the invading conquistadors and were no match for the mounted Spanish warriors with their iron weapons and amour.  At first, according to legend, they thought the horses and their riders were a single beast, but they soon learned that horse and rider were separate and mortal. After suffering disastrous defeats in the hands of the Spanish in the early years, Lautaro a young Mapuche captive, son of a chief and stable boy for Pedro De Valdivia, escaped on horseback taking with him knowledge of riding and the tactics necessary to defeat the Spanish.   He became the Mapuche military leader, united the bands into an effective fighting force, and defeated the Spanish at fort Tucapel.  Pedro de Valdivia came to the defeated fort and while camped in the ruins was attacked by Lautaro’s forces, defeated, captured and executed.[3]  

While the Chilean conquistadores tried to keep horses out of Mapuche hands, Spanish retreating from Buenos Aires abandoned a dozen or more, and by 1580 their descendants and other escaped horses had grown to 12,000 head.[4]  By 1600 constant Spanish attacks had decimated the Mapuche and transformed them from a largely sedentary, riverine culture of farmers into mobile equestrian bands of warrior-herders, and trade across the Andes supplied the Mapuche with more horses than the Spaniards had.  They were to hold the Spanish, and later the Chilean, armies at bay for the next 250 years.  The key was their horses, which became central to Mapuche culture. 
The meat of their horses became, and remains today, their favorite food, the melted fat and blood their drink. Blood sausage was reserved for the owner of a horse or mare that had been ceremonially sacrificed. Blood was also used to wash their hair and to gain strength through its magical powers; the beating heart cured respiratory illnesses of children. Its fat burned in lamps. Travel shelters were made with horse skins, the hair inside. Skin also made their beds, cloaks, loin cloths, women’s aprons and boots. With the leather they made lariats, reins, saddles. The manes were used to make ropes and the weskel (a ring men used to increase sexual pleasure).

Having become integrated into the daily life of the Mapuche, the horse was also incorporated into ceremonies related to the supernatural world. In the nguillatún [the major annual ceremony] it was sacrificed and along with the riding equipment formed part of the funereal goods that accompanied its owner to the other side of the mythical sea
Horse meat in Chile today

Today, over four centuries after the Mapuche obtained horses, they continue to be central to the culture, and horse meat continues to be eaten; and not just by Mapuche.  No data is available on the percentage of Chileans who eat horse meat, but a recent study of dietary habits of 200 Mapuche residents of the Santiago region found that it is eaten by 31% of households surveyed.[6]  Overall, Chilean horse meat consumption averages only 600 grams per person per year, but it is higher than lamb, at 400 grams.  Chile has some 200 equine butcher shops, mostly located in working class neighborhoods in Santiago and to the south.  The meat is “of good quality and, well presented in defined cuts similar to beef cuts.”  Chile also has some 33 horse meat processing plants, making cold cuts and sausages. Horse meat jerky is available in super markets... at least occasionally.

Equine butcher shops in Temuco.  Photo Credit:  lorhuc

Temuco, capital of Chile’s Araucanía Region, heartland of Mapuche culture, has 20 or more equine butcher shops for a population of a little over a 260,000.  An article called “Boom in horse meat” in the July 4, 2005 edition of the Austral, the region's daily newspaper, reported:
Perhaps the most characteristic equine butcher shop is Carnes Salazar [Salazar Meats] with several decades of experience.  The owners Cristina, David and Pablo, follow the path of their father, Sergio, specializing in horse meat. "Consumption has grown a lot.  The people like it because it has changed greatly. Before they thought that it was smelly and tough, from cart horses.” Their animals are cleanly raised and provide a tasty and tender meat.  As a meat market they sell three 1300 lb. horse carcasses a week. A fattened house provides a tender and tasty product.  A thin horse, on the other hand, yields tough meat. Prices for the animal have increased, due to the high demand. Now there are more meat markets too.  
Carnes Salazar buys animals from producers in the south and also from a specialized horse fattener in Talca.  “People have learned a lot about this meat. Sometimes they bought it not knowing that it was horse and then returned to congratulate us.  They change their minds quickly."  Carnes Salazar has become known for selling their seasoned churrasco [sandwich steak].  The consumption of this meat is democratic.  All socioeconomic levels look for it.  The rural people look for cuts with bone to prepare the traditional cazuela.[7]
In Temuco’s Pinto market, another equine butcher with 22 years of experience has a sligltly different take on his customers:  “Sixty to 70% of out consumers are rural people.  The Mapuche have taught the people of Temuco to eat this meat, and they now consume a lot.  It’s much healthier.”

Nutritionally, he is correct; horse meat is nutritionally superior to more common meats: lower in fat, calories and cholesterol, and higher in protein.[8]


My experience with horse meat was in Temuco, in the Mapuche restaurant Kokavi where I had horse steak.  It was tender and flavorful, cooked medium-well.  The taste was very much like beef.

While Kokavi is an unpretentious neighborhood restaurant, favored by local Mapuche and winka (non-Mapuche), horse meat is also served in more elegant venues.  Mapuche Chef Juan Carlos Quiñeman of Santiago’s Hotel Four Points by Sheridan recently won the silver medal in the XXIII National Concourse of Gastronomy in the traditional cuisine category for his Koru Kawell con Tukun e Iwiñkofke, a cazuela of horse meat with toasted wheat, served with fried squash-dough breads and a relish of wheat hominy, tomatoes and chili.  You may not find cazuela de caballo con locro y sopaipillas con pebre de mote every day at the dining room of the Four Points, but Chef Quiñeman is there:

“I’ve always been restless to do something related to my roots with distinct flavor because it is prepared by someone who carries the blood.  They are memories that come from my childhood,” he explains.[9]

[1] Actas de los diálogos interculturales entre cosmovisiones científicas y mapuche, Segunda Asamblea Plenaria. On line at (Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine.)
[2] The Chilean Horse: Americas Oldest Horse. On line at
[3] Battle of Tucapel, Wikipedia. On line at
[4] Criollo (horse), Wikipedia.  On line at
[5] Ulloa, Gonzalo. 2010 El caballo: el recurso que revolucionó al mundo mapuche. Revista Travesía. 13 February, 2010 On line at
[6]  Schnettler, Berta, Huaiquinir, Valeska, Mora, Marcos et al. Diferencias étnicas y de aculturación en el consumo de alimentos en la Región Metropolitana de Santiago, Chile. ALAN, dic. 2009, vol.59, no.4, p.407-418  On line at
[7] Avilés, Hardy. 2005 El boom de la carne de caballo: Crece en forma "galopante" El Austral, Reportajes.  July 4, 2005.  On line at
[8] Luengo, Juan. El caballo: una alternativa en el consumo actual de carnes. TECNO VET: Año 7 N°3, diciembre 2001. On line at,1409,SCID%253D9611%2526ISID%253D467,00.html
[9] Mundaca, Gianina.  Al rescate de la cocina mapuche.  Km Cero.  On line at