Merkén Is the Smoky Chilean Spice Blend Your Pantry Is Missing
For whatever reason, merkén seems to have drawn the short straw in the spice department. Hailing from the southern Araucanía region of Chile, merkén—a fiery mixture of dried and toasted ají cacho de cabra, coriander, cumin and salt—remains an obscure spice even as ones from other parts of the world, like za'atar and garam masala, break cultural barriers. But with its earthy flavor and heavy hit of smoke, merkén imparts a piquant hit of an open flame to whatever it touches.
For Victoria Blamey, the Chilean-born head chef at the revamped Chumley's in New York City's West Village, the lack of spotlight shining on merkén is baffling. Its magnificence, Blamey says, is old news; it rose to prominence in her home country years ago: "I left Chile 14 years ago, but when I was there, people were using merkén like crazy, because it was rediscovered." For better or worse, native Chileans' interest in their country's traditional cuisines has begun to flower only in recent decades. That's meant reacquainting diners with the native flavors and techniques of Chilean cuisine.
"It's very unknown to us," Blamey says of Chilean fare. "We didn't grow up knowing very much about where everything came from." For decades, Chilean food was "very colonial" and revolved mostly around simple steak dishes. More adventurous chefs looked to Spain or France for inspiration. "What's happening now, though, is that people are trying to look for different herbs that grow on the coast. They're exploring our seafood. It's very interesting for us as a country."
Blamey recalls that merkén, which is made from smoked red chile dried by the indigenous Mapuche people, was one of the first products to gain traction among these culinary vanguards. Chefs began to experiment with it, leading to its growing presence on the shelves of gourmet stores. Eventually, it became just another spice in the Chilean home cook's cabinet. Even so, it hasn't managed to infiltrate the American market in any meaningful way. Yet.
Soon, it'll touch down in New York City. The flavors at Chumley's are not strictly Chilean—the restaurant is perhaps most known for a decadent, marrow-smeared burger and a gold-flecked lobster éclair—but Blamey's heritage makes frequent cameos. For her fall menu, Blamey is testing a pork adobo bolstered by a smoky marinade infused with merkén, which she brought back from her last trip to Chile. "It's really versatile, and it gives a complexity," she says.
Those intrigued by merkén don't have to wait for its appearance on a restaurant menu though. The Internet is a savior of little-known spices; merkén is available on Amazon. Sprinkle it on creamy cannellini broccoli soup, perfectly ripe cantaloupe or lamb meatballs nestled atop a bed of Greek yogurt. In other words, anything that might benefit from a little smoke.
"I don't think we use it enough," Blamey says. "It's native, and we still have a big community of Mapuche. Whether merkén is trendy or not, I do think we should be talking about it."
Rachel Tepper Paley is a writer, editor and sometimes illustrator living in New York City. See what she's eating over at @thepumpernickel on Instagram.
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