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|December 11-17, 2008
• The search for Boulder’s Big Apple
Jimmy and Drew’s 28th Street Deli takes a shot at authenticity
by Clay Fong
The Chilean treasure
Spice things up with merken
by Maricel E. Presilla
My Chilean friends Maria Eugenia and Oscar Baeza are on the phone telling me they are coming to visit. Having ironed out the details of their arrival, we fall into a little ritual.
“What should we bring you from Chile, Maricel?” they ask, though they know the answer. As usual, I pause, laugh, and say, “Merken, of course.”
A condiment of the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group, merken is a ground mixture of dried, smoked aji cacho de cabra, a Chilean pepper that looks a bit like the Mexican guajillo, and seasonings that include cumin, coriander seeds and salt. One of my favorite Latin ingredients, this paprika-like blend adds heat, intense smoky flavor, saltiness and subtle aroma to everything from soups and braises to table salsas.
I got to know merken many years ago on a trip to a small Mapuche village near the town of Temuco, the capital of Chile’s Araucania region, and later found a source at Santiago’s Mercado Central (Central Market). (About 10 years ago, Maria Eugenia stashed 10 kilos of merken I had ordered in her luggage — and had difficulty convincing U.S. Customs it was for cooking.)
As merken has become a kind of password for my friendship with the Baezas, I have not told them I can now buy it in this country. Chileangourmet, a San Francisco distributor of Chilean specialties, has begun importing it in both powder form and infused in extra-virgin olive oil (Kultrun). A whiff of this wonderful stuff takes me back to the trip of discovery Maria Eugenia and I made to the land of the Mapuche.
Beginning in Valdivia, a coastal town at the confluence on three rivers, we drove inland past Temuco to visit the family of a Mapuche Indian woman named Sofia who had taught us many traditional recipes while working as a cook for Maria Eugenia.
We found Sofia’s family living in a ruka, a traditional straw-thatched hut where life revolves around a central hearth. Above the fire hung sturdy baskets of provisions like corn and hot dried cacho de cabra peppers. The heat kept these foods dry (an important consideration in this humid part of Chile), while the smoke gave the peppers a delicious, paprika-like flavor. The women of the household ground them to a coarse powder in a small stone mortar with toasted dried spices and salt.
Just a taste of this homemade merken made me into a fan. It was alive with flavor and full of complexity. On our way back to Valdivia we stopped at Temuco, where we bought a few ounces from an elderly woman and a couple of pounds from a store. The latter was much finer in texture than the old lady’s but had little of its intense smoky flavor. I soon learned to tell homemade merken from that processed in large mills and to recognize regional variations in flavor. In some areas, merken is rich in coriander seeds while in others, cumin dominates the mix.
Those early purchases came in unmarked bags, but these days merken is sold in Chile’s elegant food boutiques in handsome spice containers with symbolic Mapuche brand names. The merken imported by Chileangourmet is produced by artisans in the Araucania region and has fair-trade certification.
The gentrification of merken coincides with both the global search for local flavors and a revalidation of the Mapuche contribution to Chile’s national discourse.
The relationship among Spaniards, criollos and indigenous peoples was never easy. When Spanish troops moved into Chile in 1541, they encountered the Mapuche, one of the few Andean societies to have resisted Incan control. Semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers who also practiced agriculture, the Mapuche lived in central and southern Chile and across the Andes in parts of today’s Argentina.
So fierce was their resistance that the Spaniards could only claim control of the north and central regions of Chile. The vast lands south of the Bio-Bio River remained in Mapuche control.
Though maintaining a measure of independence, they were not immune to European influence, keeping captive Spanish women as wives, learning to grow wheat and becoming cattle growers and accomplished horsemen. Merken, with its mixture of native American cacho de cabra pepper and aromatic Mediterranean spices, is another example of this creative fusion.
In the post-independence period, the Mapuche were stripped of land and lost the right to trade and keep their herds. They became poor farmers whose interests often conflicted with those of the criollo farmers who flooded Chile’s heartland.
In recent years, many Mapuche have migrated to urban centers, particularly Santiago, where they continue to voice their grievances over land disputes and cultural issues in protest marches and public rallies.
When I use artisanal merken from the Araucania, the Mapuche heartland, I am not only keeping the spirit of the ruka and its smoky hearth alive, but also the collective will of a tenacious people who have won the right to live on and leave their mark.
Camarones al Merken
Merken is similar to smoked paprika but contains toasted cumin, coriander seeds and salt. Just a tablespoon turns this simple shrimp dish into something special. Serve over rice or toss with pasta accompanied by a riesling or gewurztraminer from Chile’s cool Bio Bio region.
1 pound rock shrimp or medium shrimp, shelled and deveined but with tails on
Freshly ground pepper
Salt to taste, depending on the saltiness of the merken
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
8 plum tomatoes, finely chopped (about 3 cups)
1 tablespoon merken or 2 teaspoons smoked hot Spanish paprika (preferably Peimenton de la Vera) plus 1⁄2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 cup dry white wine or beer
1 tablespoon orange juice
Finely chopped cilantro
Rinse shrimp and pat dry. Place in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Let rest at least 5 minutes. Heat the oil over medium heat in a large skillet until it sizzles. Add the garlic and saute until golden, about 40 seconds. Add the tomatoes and cook 8 minutes. Stir in the merken and cook about 1 minute. Pour in the wine and orange juice and cook for 2 or 3 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook until curled and rosy, about 3 more minutes. Garnish with cilantro. Makes 6 servings.
Per serving: 171 calories (33 percent from fat), 6.2 g fat (0.9 g saturated, 3.6 g monounsaturated), 114.9 mg cholesterol, 16.4 g protein, 6.2 g carbohydrates, 1.4 g fiber, 122.3 mg sodium.
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