I first discovered the deliciousness that is merkén when we were staying in the Cascada EcoCamp in Chilean Patagonia. See? I warned you about the annoying ‘I’m such a global traveller’ references! Anyway, back to the merkén. The food at the EcoCamp was really something else, especially considering the remote location. I can’t imagine the logistics involved in delivering such quality and flavour to tables three times a day in such a place.
Dinner always included a vegetable soup and the first night I was offered merkén to spice it up a little. Given that I rarely pass up an opportunity to give any type of food some extra sock-it-to-me, I readily accepted. That was the moment merkén and I fell in love and we have been together ever since.
What is it?
Merkén is made from the aji cacho de cabra, or goat horn pepper, which is dried, smoked over a wood fire, and then ground in a stone mortar with salt, toasted coriander, and cumin or oregano. It is a slow process involving fire, smoke and air – I love things that take time and care to prepare. I guess (but am hoping it ain’t so) the traditional process is changing now merkén is becoming more recognised, more widely available and more in demand across the world – sad face.
Where is it from?
Merkén was brought to us by the Mapuche of South America. The Mapuche are the largest Indian group on the continent, making up about 10% of the Chilean population. The Mapuche are famous for determined and ongoing fending off of various invasions, most specifically the Incan and then the Spanish. What is with those Spaniards? I love Spain, absolutely to my core – the place, the food, the people, the language, the wine – but jeepers they were quite into conquering and invading and all that blokey ‘rape and pillage’, weren’t they? I digress. The Mapuche decided this Spanish invasion was not for them and organised themselves like the best kind of union, despite being an agrarian society and quite diversely spread. They developed some killer fight-back strategies and managed to keep those nasty Spaniards at bay for about 300 years. Go you Mapuche!
The taste of merkén is unlike anything else but if I had to give you a reference I would say a bit smoked paprika, a little chipotle.
Ideas for merken:
Merken goes very well with all sorts of grains and potatoes. The smokey flavour with a bit of chilli (not too hot) gives plain bases a real depth, and it still remains fairly friendly to sensitive heat-phobes. Aside: I don’t understand the heat phobia myself – I think chilli fixes everything. In food and life.
Use merken as a rub for red meat and also with seafood dishes (sparingly, unless the seafood is robust in flavour. It is excellent in ceviche – I used a variant of this recipe for New Years Eve dinner and it was amaze. Swap the smoked chilli for merken, used ocean perch not dhufish and also threw in some avocado and used lime juice instead of finger limes (which are hard to come by in our neck of the woods).
I throw some merken into mayo often. Can’t go wrong with that. And am thinking if you sprinkled it on pita to make toasts for dipping it would be PDG. Give it a go and tell me how it turns out.
Where to get merken? I got mine in South America (obvs) and the only place I can find it in Australia will only sell in boxes of 24 packets. Stay tuned – I will be on a serious hunt when my current supply runs out.
The fun facts.
Merken was not recognised in food circles for an eternity, due to the age-old perception that spicy food was for the poor, the underclasses. This was quite a thing for a long time. French food! Oh so la-di-dah and what one must eat if one is having a gourmet experience. Mexican, Thai, Indian? That’s for takeaways, not for upmarket restaurants.
Luckily this has all changed. Spice is IN! And there is a burgeoning pride in Chilean and Peruvian cuisine, evidenced by the number of South American restaurants now included in World Top Restaurant lists. Places like Central in Lima (watch Chefs Table on Netflix for the lowdown on this intriguing spot and other South American chefs). Having experienced Astrid y Gaston and Fiesta in Lima personally (because I am a woman of the world and global gal), I can attest to the incredible pride and interest in food there, and particularly indigenous cuisine.
Of course ultimately history, people, conquerors, and the usual scenario played out for the Mapuche. People forced from native lands, increasing poverty and disadvantage, you know the drill. What is it with us humans? We really are the most appalling species. And we NEVER LEARN.
There’s lots more to know about the Mapuche if you are interested.