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Chilean cuisine: How cane sugar shaped a beet-growing nation’s best-loved dishes
Chile is one of the three countries in the southern hemisphere – along with Venezuela and Uruguay – that grows sugar beet. It’s mild, Mediterranean year-round climate puts it consistently among the world’s lowest-cost beet sugar producers, producing an estimated 109,000 tonnes in 2022/23. But Chile hasn’t always been famed for beet growing. The country’s traditional cuisine makes much more use of ‘chancaca’: a dark, rich cane sugar that arrived on South American shores around the time of the Spanish conquest in 1538.
Chancaca: the dark unrefined sugar that spread over a continent
When sugarcane arrived in Colombia with the Spanish conquistadores, it was instantly popular and quickly expanded to the furthest reaches of the continent. Chile, some 4000 miles south, was no exception. Chancaca is also known as ‘panela’ in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. In Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, and the Dominican Republic, it’s ‘rapadura’.
To make it, raw sugarcane is juiced, producing a dark, rich thin and watery liquid. After straining it to remove bits of leaves and cane, it’s simmered slowly over a low heat for many hours to evaporate, leaving a thick brown syrup, which is poured into moulds where is then sets into blocks of sugar.
Chancaca is similar, but not the same as molasses, the by-product of cane sugar production. Chancaca has the full-bodied taste of molasses, but molasses is more concentrated because it’s the film of syrup that’s extracted from the sugar crystals, rather than the ‘whole’ dehydrated juice.
Purveyors sell chancaca in circular or square blocks. In Chile, if you’re making a recipe with chancaca the chances are you’ll use a half or a quarter of a block of it, rather than weighing it in grams or ounces.
Mote con huesillos: a wheaty drink with cooked dried peaches
Starting in Spring and all throughout the hot Chilean summer, you can see locals and tourists all over the country beating their hunger, thirst and the heat with cool glasses of Mote con huesillos. An unusual combination of rehydrated dried peaches, husked wheat, water and chancaca, there’s a local saying that goes ‘Más chileno que el mote con huesillos,’ or ‘More Chilean than mote con huesillos’.
Both mote (husked wheat) and huesillos (dried peaches) have a long history in Chile. Mote dates back to the first influxes of colonists, when wheat production began in the region. Chileans didn’t get huesillos until the late 18th century, and the two weren’t paired together until later than that, although nobody seems to know exactly when.
Leche Asada: roasted milk, Chilean style
Leche Asada, Chile’s ‘roasted milk’, is an old dessert that grandmothers still prepare according to recipes from their grandmothers, who might have used the same methods and ingredients as their grandmothers did.
A kind of Chilean crème brûlée, this creamy and delicious dessert can be sweetened with any kind of sugar. It is best topped with soft light brown sugar before going under the grill to give it that classic crack and aromatic smoky flavour, which comes from the molasses in the brown sugar blend. The core ingredients are fresh whole milk, eggs and sugar, but most cooks add some vanilla or cinnamon.
Pebre: the spicy side dish softened with sugar
Despite its name, in general, the cuisine of Chile is decidedly unspicy. However, ‘pebre’, one of the country’s favourite condiments, is an exception. Prepared with coriander, chopped onions, olive oil, garlic and a spicy pepper paste, it also often contains chopped tomatoes, as well as diced green peppers.
Because so many of Chile’s best-loved dishes rely on these cane sugars, Chile exports most of its beet sugar. Interestingly, although Chile’s beet production is down for the 2022/23 campaign, it still produced more beet than many of the more traditional beet growing nations in Europe.
As a sugar beet producing nation, Chile is a great example of the powerful legacy of ancestral ingredients in national cuisines. Modern Chileans still treasure the same flavours – not least the intense, unmistakeable taste of chancaca – as their forebears did nearly 500 years ago.
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