Much like the metal that comes from deep within Chile's mines, the national spice also has a copper hue. Within the last few years, merkén, made from ground smoked chiles, has moved from being solely a local curiosity to a tabletop mainstay in Chile and is now making headway into the U.S. market.
Traditionally used in the cooking of the indigenous Mapuche culture, merkén has a smoky, warm flavor that adds heat and richness to food, especially wintertime dishes. Mapuches traditionally incorporate merkén into cheeses or use it to coat almonds, peanuts and walnuts, but it's also ideal for meats, lentils, sauces and cazuelas, or stews.
Now merkén has come to Southern California, where it can be found at Whole Foods Markets (and online). Use it as you would any other ground chile — to lend its distinctively smoky warmth to dishes or even to use as a substitute for everyday cracked black pepper. You can think of it as similar to Spain's pimentón de la Vera — but with added complexity.
Until recently, Chile's Mapuche culture had not been considered as gastronomically rich as that of other indigenous cultures, such as the Incas. But as interest in different cultures has grown, so too has the interest in local dishes and cooking methods, said Claudio Soto, owner of Santiago's oldest restaurant, Confitería Torres. And that has led directly to merkén.
"Recently, there's been a return to our culinary culture," says Soto. "Within the past 15 to 20 years, merkén has become popular, and within the past seven to eight, it's become incredibly popular. They sell it everywhere; they use it everywhere. It's basic. Anything you want to make, you start with merkén."
No small feat to make, merkén is a mixture of dried, toasted ají cacho de cabra, or goat's horn red chile, plus coriander, salt and cumin. It's made only in the southern Araucanía region of Chile, and the process begins when the chile is harvested in February while it is still green. In about a month's time, the chiles turn a deep red and are then ready to be made into merkén.
The chiles are first dried in the sun and then toasted over a wood fire. The seeds are removed and the chile is ground into a fine powder in a stone mortar and pestle, with the salt, coriander and cumin. "Natural merkén," made without coriander and cumin, is also available.
In the south of Chile, merkén can be found in large burlap sacks at farmers markets, where it is sold by the cupful by small farmers; in Santiago, the spice is also prevalent. Even Santiago's major supermarkets carry a merkén-flavored olive oil called Olave (it can also be found at Whole Foods).
More recently, as part of the international upsurge in interest in rustic local dishes, younger chefs in Chile have begun incorporating the spice into their creations.
Just a bit of merkén in hot chocolate adds hearty warmth and a tad more flavor to the wintertime drink. Bars of chocolate tinged with merkén can be found in the gourmet aisles in some Santiago grocery stores. The spice can also be beaten into cream cheese or added to pasta sauce. And it can be used to add heat and depth to dips and sauces. Many times, mashed potatoes in Chile are served slightly pink, tinted with the blend of spices.
Merkén has also been making headway into spice racks in the U.S. and Europe. Sold through the company Origen Chilean Gourmet, merkén in the U.S. comes with the image of a bronze kultrun, or Mapuche drum, on the front of the container. The kultrun in Chile is synonymous with the struggle for indigenous rights because of the large role the drum plays in Mapuche culture.
According to Business Chile magazine, 60% of Origen Chilean Gourmet's products, including merkén, are destined for the United States and are as far reaching as Australia, France and Canada.
Merkén's increasing popularity abroad has led to a growth in standardizing production of the spice in Chile, says Gina Leonelli, of the agricultural school at Temuco Catholic University. She has been working with Mapuche communities in the Araucanía region for years and oversees the production of merkén for export.
In fact, she said, that increased interest in the spice has led merkén to be added to the list of diverse products — olive and avocado oils, mustards, noodles, garlic paste, peanuts, fig salsas, wine jellies and peanuts — produced for export abroad. The centuries-old spice, once enjoyed only by its native users, has become an emerging global phenomenon.