Grinning Ear to Ear

By Lindsay Sterling

Three Chileans taught me how to make their favorite dish from Santiago, Chile, called pastel de choclo. Benjamin Sepulveda, a Chilean high school student on an exchange program in Maine admitted that this was the first time he was cooking the dish by himself. “I have watched my mother and grandmother do this a million times. It’s not something we cook alone, only with family.” Javiera Alvarez, a fellow Chilean exchange student, agreed. “The whole family cooks it together.” Marcela Naveas, the students’ chaperone, chimed in, “Pastel de choclo is a traditional food in our country that’s served for lunch in summer when the corn is fresh.”

They each got started preparing a different component of the dish. Benjamin sautéed ground beef with onions, paprika, oregano, cumin, and salt. Marcela boiled chicken breasts and whole eggs. And Javiera started blending fresh corn kernels with basil in a blender. At home, her family uses a metal hand-cranked meat grinder to turn the fresh corn kernels into a thick, course porridge. Pulsing the blender seemed to do the trick.

The sights and smells in the kitchen brought back fond memories. Benjamin recalled, “I grew up at my grandfather’s house in the rural outskirts of Santiago. His neighbors were farmers. When they were harvesting corn they would drop a bag at our house, and we would make this dish.” One person in the family would shuck the corn, another would cut the kernels off the cob, and another would put the corn through the grinder. Marcela turned the water on and left it running as she cut an onion, explaining that this was a one of the secretos de naturaleza she learned in the kitchen: if you keep the tap water on while cutting onions, you won’t cry. I didn’t see any tears.

In a casserole dish Benjamin, Javiera, and Marcela layered the ground beef and onions, thin slices of chicken and hardboiled egg, raisins and black olives, and then covered everything with corn porridge about an inch deep. After sprinkling a little sugar on top, they put the corn pie in the oven.

As we waited, we talked about their first impressions of the United States. Benjamin said his biggest highlight was “meeting people from around the world at Casco Bay high school – Congo, Rwanda, Iraq, Sudan. It’s amazing there. Really rich culturally.” The smell of corn bread cooking overtook the house as Javiera shared what she liked. “Here in America, everybody can be themselves. Homosexual people can be homosexual with out being judged. Everyone can be how they want to be.”

They were all grinning ear to ear as Benjamin pulled the pastel de choclo out of the oven: a success! Restaurants in Santiago serve pastel de choclo in individual clay bowls made in a Pomaire, a Chilean town famous for its earthenware pottery, but families make a large version and serve pieces as they would serve cake. “Pastel” means “cake,” and “choclo” is a Chilean word from native Quechua that means “corn.” The dish, with a golden brown topping, was as inviting as a wrapped present. It tasted like a summer adventure, sweet and fulfilling.