Chiloé’s ancient clam bake

Fuego para curanto.
Burning fire for Kurantou - © Lin Linao/

Curanto is Chile's most traditional food, and provably its most ancient as well, a way of cooking dating back to at least 7,000 years.

It originated at Chiloé Archipélago and later expanded to other parts of Chile and Argentina. To the Rapa Nui culture of Easter Island for instance, it's known as Uma Tao or Uma Tahu.

Throughout History, many different cultures have used - and still use - an earth oven or cooking pit to feed themselves, kurantou is just another manifestation of the same principle.

While there is no formal recipe or a fixed list of ingredients, what they all share is the same cooking technique.

In fact, it is known under different names, however, it seems to be more associated with the South Pacific and Polynesian cultures in general. The Hawaiian's have the kalua, Samoans the umu, the Maori (New Zealand) hangi, the Papua New Guinean mumu, the Rotuman koua, the Fijian lovo.

In the Americas, it's called clam bake in New England, pachamanca in Peru and paparuto in Paraguay and Brazil. Central Asia's tandoor, it's a variation of it, a transitional design between a pit oven and a masonry oven that uses live-fire baking instead.

So, what is Curanto?

Curanto al hoyo Chilote (the most traditional one) begins by digging a hole in the ground - its diameter and depth would vary, as well as the amount of food added, according the number of attendees. The bottom is covered with stones and heated in a bonfire until red hot. By the way, Chilote is a native from Chiloé island.

The bottom and sides of the pit are then covered with nalca (Chilean rhubarb) leaves to seal it. Previously seasoned, ingredients are placed in layers, each of them separated by more leaves. It would include choritos (mussels), razor clams, sea urchins, picorocos (giant barnacles), jaibas (crab), oysters, machas, and shelled seafood.

Another layer would be of meat like pork sausages, smoked pork and chicken. Finally, the potatoes, chapaleles (potato bread with flower) and milcaos (potatoe pancakes) are added. After sealing it with more nalca leaves it's covered with wet sacks and finally soil panes with grass (champas) facing down, creating a giant steam oven that would cook for hours.

Another way of cooking it - known as pulmay or curanto de olla - it's done in a large stew pot, where cabbage leaves are used to replace the nalca. However, recipes vary.

Curanto. Traditional Chilean dish
Food is ready- © danaj_m (flickr)

Curanto History

Chiloé island - second largest island in Chile and fifith largest in the South American continent - is separated from mainland Chile by Chacao Channel, treacherous waters once navigated by the boat, nomadic people of the Chono culture, using small wooden boats known as dalcas.

Archaeological evidence show traces of an earlier form of curanto in Chiloé island dating back to 12,000 BC.

The Chonos were later conquered by the Huillices - Mapuche culture - branch of the Araucanians, before the advent of Spanish colonization.

While it's widely acknowledged as native from Chiloé island, there is a theory suggesting that curanto adds more evidence of contact between America and Polynesia in pre-Columbian times.

Whichever origin we'd like to assign it to, when you head down to Chile make sure you try one, and you will enjoy another manifestation of authentic South American food.


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