If the thought of eating food sold on the sidewalk makes you queasy, you can stop reading now. Fortunately for us, though, we have resilient stomachs and an insatiable curiosity about the snacks vendors whip up on busy corners. The smells alone are enough stop us in our tracks. “Oooh,” Jake can be heard saying, “what does he/she have there?”
One of the toughest things about backpacking – and long-term travel in general – is feeding yourself every day, multiple times a day, on a budget. Airbnb makes it a little easier, as access to a kitchen provides a little sense of normalcy amidst the chaos of living on the road. But still, shopping, cooking and cleaning isn’t always realistic. That’s why street food can be such a blessing.
It can also be safe to eat, if you use common sense when making your selections, and incredibly tasty. Here’s a rundown of the most common offerings we encountered in Santiago, Chile, where eating on the go is the norm.
Anticuchos. We’ll start here, as we’re confident we’ll be talking about these mouthwatering barbecued meat skewers, also known as brochettes, until the end of time. Originally from the Andes, today different countries in South America serve up their own variations. In Santiago, it’s easy to find beef, pork and chicken variations during the second half of the day – just follow the smell and the smoke. The skewers are prepared with a piece of sausage and/or a slice of white onion on the bottom, which makes for a yummy final bite, and are tastiest when drizzled with sauce – the locals love mayonnaise or creamy, spicy pica. If you ask, the vendor will also give you a slice of baguette to enjoy along with it, making it a hearty snack.
During the Inca period, the anticucho was prepared with llama meat and seasoned with herbs and chili, a delicacy we were able to try for ourselves while visiting the Atacama desert. (If you’re curious, llama tastes a little bit like deer but is less gamey – and it’s delicious!)
Completos and sandwichs. Almost nothing is easier to find than the completo, the Chilean version of a hot dog. The basics – a long bun and a hot dog – are the same, but the toppings and sauces are on a whole different level. The most common toppings are palta (“avocado,” but we’d compare it to guacamole), chopped tomatoes, sauerkraut, eggs and cheese. For sauce, we saw generous portions of mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, aji pepper sauce and salsa Americana (“American sauce”). We had to look the latter up, but apparently “American sauce” is a pickled mix of cucumbers, carrots and onions; we thought it tasted like relish. Sometimes, vendors will ask if you want your order prepared as a completo or a sandwich.
At night, carts with larger grills are rolled out in some places with all the same ingredients, but men flip burgers and fry ham to create multilayered masterpieces that locals love to eat before a night out on the town.
Fruit cups, yogurt and jugos naturales. After a couple of months, we asked ourselves how we ever survived at home without healthy breakfast options sold on the corner. Chunks of melon, strawberry, orange, pineapple, kiwi, watermelon and dragon fruit – plus grapes and passion-fruit seeds – make for a delicious morning snack that never gets old. We also loved yogurt cups topped with granola, raisins and corn flakes. What really makes Chile special, though, is the abundance of fresh-squeezed juice, from strawberry to orange to mango.
Empanadas. Oh, the empanada. South Americans can’t seem to get enough of these, and that was definitely the case in Chile. It’s perfectly acceptable to eat an empanada morning, noon or night – and when you try the many variations, you understand why. From baked versions filled with ham and cheese; chicken; beef; and tomato, basil and cheese – to fried versions oozing with just cheese – empanadas are sold seemingly everywhere, in corner stores, restaurants and, yes, on the street.
Sopaipillas. These puffy friend pastries are perhaps the cheapest, most humble street food you can find. They have a history in Argentina, Peru, Uruguay and U.S. Mexican cuisine, but in Chile they’ve been eaten since at least the early 18th century. Traditionally made from leavened wheat dough, Chileans often add cooked ground pumpkin or sweet potato. The dough is rolled out, cut into round shapes, poked with a fork and fried to a golden brown. We saw locals eating them drizzled with pebre sauce (chili pepper, onion, garlic, oil and coriander), and condiments like ketchup and mustard.
Churros. In Chile, churros aren’t the skinny cinnamon-sugar sticks many Americans know and love (thanks, Disneyland!). Instead, they’re more like long, puffy donuts, with hot, gooey dulce de leche inside. We loved them fried on the spot, then rolled in white sugar. Mmmm.
Rico’s Taqueños. Sometimes, you’re just craving bread and cheese. That’s when you head to a Rico’s Taquenos cart, where they fry cheese-filled breadsticks up hot. We saw smaller versions that resembled breaded taquitos, as well as longer versions the size of a churro. Some vendors also offered sauces alongside them.
Mote con huesillos. This is one the street offerings we were hesitant to try – to the outsider, it looked like a strange drink served with corn, with bees buzzing far too close by. After a little research, though, we got a cup of our own. Mote con huesillos is a uniquely Chilean dessert drink that’s best served on a hot summer day. It consists of a mixture of caramelized juice, soaked wheat seeds (not corn, after all) and dehydrated peaches, which become plump when soaked overnight. We likened it to super-sweet iced tea, and we were surprised at how much we enjoyed the chewiness of the wheat seeds. When in Rome, right?
This list doesn’t include some of the dicier offerings – namely, pre-prepared sushi rolls, sandwiches and fajita wraps stored in styrofoam coolers, with no temperature control systems in sight – so follow your instincts when choosing. We also avoided snacks that didn’t seem uniquely Chilean, like fried chicken and french fries, which the locals seem to love all the same.
With all these savory and sweet snacks available at cheap prices, we were grateful that Santiago is such a walkable city. In the end, we fell into a routine – walk, eat, walk, eat, walk, eat.