Chilean cuisine is not particularly spice-heavy when compared to the food cultures of other Latin American countries. The dishes have relatively simple flavor profiles, possibly due to heavy German immigration to the country in the 20th century. However, Chilean food does make use of a handful of staple spices that show up in many dishes. Here is a look at some of the more popular Chilean spices.
The boldo leaf comes from an evergreen tree and is a common ingredient in Chilean recipes and recipes from all over South America. They are used in the same way that bay leaves, which means that they are used in dishes that cook for a long time and added early in the cooking process. Boldo leaves are also a popular tea herb. They bring a resinous, camphoraceous flavor to meat and fish.
Sometimes spelled as merquien or merquen and created by the indigenous Chileans called the Mapuche, merken is a smoked chili powder similar to Mexico’s chipotle powder. It is made from the aji cacho de cabra, which translates to goat’s horn pepper. The pepper is dried, smoked, and ground to a powder.
The powdered pepper is combined with spices that arrived in Chile via European colonization, such as cumin and coriander. The resulting blend is arguably the most distinctive Chilean spice; however, it is not well known outside of Chile. The spice’s relative obscurity is the product of classism since, in Chile, it is considered a working-class spice and not for refined palates. Nonetheless, merken shows up in a variety of Chilean dishes including in the filling for Chilean empanadas and in the corn pudding known as pastel de choclo.
It can be used as an all-purpose source of gentle heat and smokiness. It gives food an appetizing color as well. It is used as a dry rub for lamb and pork as well as for tuna and is sometimes added to ceviche.
As in other parts of Latin America, cumin is a staple spice in Chilean cuisine. It shows up in a large number of savory recipes for proteins. Its earthy nuttiness and slightly bitter warmth are essential to the flavor profiles of dishes like the beef soup known as cazuela and the roasted pork dish known in Chile (and all over the Spanish-speaking Americas) as pernil.
Pebre sauce is a Chilean salsa where cilantro is the main ingredient. A standard pebre sauce will also include hot Andean peppers like aji amarillo along with onions, oil, and tomatoes.
Pebre sauce is spicy, brightly herbaceous, and acidic. Similar to chimichurri sauce, it is the traditional Chilean accompaniment to grilled and roasted meats. For example, it is often served alongside pernil. The tartness and heat can help to cut through the rich fattiness of pork and similar meats.
Mexican oregano is one of the popular herbs in Chilean cooking. It is widely used enough that it could be considered one of the staple ingredients in savory dishes. It shows up in plateada, which is Chilean beef brisket as well as in cazuela and numerous other dishes. While it is not related to the true oregano, it does have a similar flavor profile. It offers a pungent and slightly bitter minty flavor with notes of fennel and citrus.