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What Is Curanto?

Eugene P.
Eugene P.

Curanto is a traditional seafood meal that originated in the Chiloe Islands in South America. The meal is as much an event and a cooking method as it is an actual recipe. To make curanto, a pit is dug in the ground and filled with firewood and stones, after which the wood is set on fire so it will heat the stones. Leaves are placed on top of the stones when ready and a variety of seafood, meat, vegetables and sometimes cheese are placed on top of the leaves covered in more leaves and finally buried to create a sealed underground oven. The food cooks and the flavors eventually meld together, at which point the pit is opened and the curanto is served.

The practice of making curanto has been in existence in the Chiloe Archipelago for thousands of years. No formal recipe exists for the meal, and it commonly consists of whatever food is readily available. Shellfish are very plentiful on the islands, which results in the meal consisting mainly of clams, snails and crabs, although fish, potatoes and the meat of goats or cows also are used. Some of the ingredients that became traditional were the result of early interaction with Spanish explorers. Dishes similar to curanto exist in different cuisines around the world, including the New England clam bake and the hangi in New Zealand.

Woman baking cookies
Woman baking cookies

Making curanto begins by digging a pit in the ground. The pit is lined with rocks, usually on the bottom and the sides; alternately, the pit is dug in an area where there are many rocks and stones in the ground already. A fire is lighted inside the pit and allowed to burn until all the stones are well heated. At this point, the traditional procedure involved laying fern leaves across the rocks and placing the food on top of the leaves. The food is then covered with more fern leaves and some cloth such as burlap, which is buried under soil to allow the food to cook.

The tightly sealed chamber that is created keeps most of the heat around the food, meaning it cooks very quickly, sometimes in less than an hour. When the food is done, the soil is removed and the pit is opened. At this point, the food is served to anyone taking part in the cooking. The curanto can be accompanied by bread or a special soup-like mixture of onions, garlic, parsley, lemon and tomatoes called peure cuchareao. The tradition of curanto eventually spread to Chile and Argentina, where it sometimes is prepared above ground in large pots.

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