Chile: Breaking Bread With The Mapuche Tribe

Elisa Cea Epuin mixes up traditional Mapuche foods with modern baked goods.

Oversized roasted pine nuts called piñones.

You might say the Mapuche, a native tribe found in south-central Chile and southwestern Argentina, were once the fiercest in all the Americas. It's not that the Mapuche were particularly violent—in fact, they're a rather peaceable and largely vegetarian people. But as a community characterized by a deep love of their land and intense pride in their culture, they resisted invasion and conquest time and again, which is kind of a big deal when you consider that their rival tribes were all conquered or colonized. And that is why today you can visit a Mapuche commune and find that it's just as much a hometown as a preserved historic village. You can sit down for a traditional Mapuche lunch not unlike what the natives have eaten centuries ago.

But before lunch, a brief history lesson.

The Incas, whose empire spanned much of the western coast of South America, from Colombia to central Chile, tried to invade Mapuche territory repeatedly during the 15th century. Despite not having an organized army, the Mapuche were the only tribe to thwart the Incas. In the 16th century, the Mapuche had to protect their land against a new enemy, the Spanish, who also failed to conquer them. Over the centuries, the Mapuche not only defended their territory, but also protected their traditions. And at least one Mapuche woman has dedicated herself to maintaining the tribe's culinary heritage.

I recently found myself in Curarrehue, a Mapuche commune near the town of Pucón, in the Lakes District of Chile. Reminiscent of a bona fide Old West cow town, there are spots to tie up your horse outside the shops, and the TV station is located in a small wooden house like what many of the residents live in. Elisa Cea Epuin, a local cook and baker, runs a pastry shop and restaurant on the main square: La Cocina de Elisa. She makes both traditional Mapuche foods and modern baked goods inspired by indigenous ingredients. Lunch at Elisa's is wholesome and wonderfully strange.

First up on her simple lunch menu was a warm bean casserole made with squash, carrots, leeks, and mote corn (mote refers to a husked grain, usually cooked in water). It may look like something you can get at the Whole Foods salad bar, except that it's garnished with homemade chips of local potatoes—white-fleshed shot through with red, like their little hearts exploded.

Next up are albaricoque, miniature sour green plums the size of grapes that Elisa lightly preserves. They are mostly pit with just a bit of flesh, making them difficult to process non-manually. We snack on these and roasted piñones – pine nuts, right? Only these things are bigger than the plums, oversize like stubby digits from the araucaria tree. The tree itself is a marvel—a massive Jurassic (literally) conifer known as the monkey-puzzle tree that can live 1,000 years. Elisa sometimes sautés the piñones in oil and seasons them with merkén, the Mapuche answer to chipotle: a smoky blend of dried and smoked peppers and, most commonly, salt, cumin and coriander.

For dessert, Elisa brings out a jam tart; the super-sweet, sticky black topping made from the maqui berry. Think of it as açai on crack. The Mapuche make a fermented drink out of it called chicha that early warriors believed gave them strength. The berry has been found to contain at least twice the antioxidants of açai, so its status as a superfood certainly is valid. When asked about the largely (though not strictly) vegetarian diet of the Mapuche, Elisa answers something about the land and seasons providing all her people need. At the end of the meal, my dining companions and I thank her profusely, hop back into our saddles and ride off into the late afternoon sun.

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