Cazuela: A Traditional Chilean Treat
Cazuela is not distinctly Chilean, but certainly has some Chilean distinctions.
Years ago I was in Culiacan, Mexico, enjoying a stew like dish that families often prepared for us. We never knew what it was, but my introduction to cazuela here in Chile brings back those memories.
The name is derived from the pot in which it’s normally (or at least traditionally) cooked. The ingredients can vary from different kinds of meats, or mixed meats, a potato, different greens such as onions, chives, cilantro, etc., a piece of the green pumpkin that’s popular in this area, a slice of corn on the cob and sometimes a filler such as rice or noodles. From this, you’re probably getting the idea that there isn’t one particular “right” way to prepare cazuela. If so, then you’re getting the picture quite nicely.
There are many small restaurants in populated areas that serve the dish, with prices generally varying from about 2500 pesos at this one, to over 5000 pesos in Las Condes, Santiago (a wealthier part of town). What’s the difference? Mainly location and any extras included.
A good example I ran across were two stores across the aisle from each other in Paseo Causiño in Viña del Mar. The restaurant above, Donde J.L., had cazuela for just 2500 pesos, while the other one, Camelot (below), was charging 3200. Curiosity growing as I wondered, I decided to try both. Here’s how the Donde J.L. cazuela looked. the water was not included in the price.
The flavor was quite nice. The service was just okay. Of course, this is a very common experience for westerners who visit Chile. We’re used to waiters/waitresses who strive to provide an excellent experience and we generally tip them accordingly. Many waitresses in Chile simply take your order and move your food from the kitchen to the table for you before giving you the bill. It’s not rudeness, just a different culture. Tips (propinas) are a standard 10%, no more.
This was highlighted at once restaurant in Santiago where the owner said he tries to hire internationals. Our waiter in that case was Peruvian, and he did a wonderful job. The owner said that Chileans just don’t understand customer service the way many other cultures do.
Having enjoyed my first bowl of cazuela at Donde J.L., I tested the dish at Camelot the next day. Notice that both of them brought out bread, salad and a spicy mixture called pebre that sort of resembles pico di gallo. The flavors of pebre vary widely from one location to another, being almost like a chunky salsa in one location to almost bitter in another. Almost invariably it is spicy hot.
As you can see, it doesn’t look that much different. And, while the flavor was different, I couldn’t really place a value on one over the other. The Camelot price, at 3200, didn’t make sense to me. But then, being the Gringo that I am, I realized that it includes a cup of wine in the price. Of course, I realized this after I’d consumed my lunch and asked the waitress about it. She affirmed my suspicions, but I had asked for just water after all. I think she felt bad, because she brought me a coffee at no extra charge afterward. Maybe she felt sorry for the ignorant Gringo?
The service in Camelot was much better, including a warmness that, along with a glass of wine, made it worth the extra 700 pesos (about US$1.30 today).
I’ve had it a couple of times since that day, and always found it quite good. I’m not a soup lover, but its combination of lightness and substance makes it a great lunch, especially when one is on the go. As you can imagine, an EscapeArtist Ambassador is on the go quite often. Sometimes when the hunger pangs hit while on the run, there’s nothing quite as inviting and welcome as a cazuela sign in the restaurant window.