Every rainy day in winter, Chileans coo, “que rico,” and head to the closest supermarket, casino (cafeteria) or grandmother’s house to get their sopaipillas pasadas on. Sopaipillas, which you might know from other Latin American cuisines, are round disks of dough, deep fried. In Chile, sometimes they are enriched with squash, though not always. They are a teen and college-aged treat late at night on street corners, eaten with a sweet mustard, and ají, a spicy sauce.
But on rainy days, visions of different sopaipillas, the hand-patted ones, slightly irregular, certainly squash-enriched, and smothered in a sweet syrup dance in Chileans’ heads. And I am left to chalk this up to nostalgia. Nostalgia for a food eaten as a child, for warm kitchens and special treats and your hair dripping down your back even while someone hands you a hot mug of tea and you know that you are warm, and that somebody loves you.
But sopaipillas pasadas don’t mean that to me.
And here’s where I admit something that could even cause problems for me later on, if ever apply for Chilean citizenship (mostly kidding about the troubles, my main challenge will be the national anthem). Until the day before yesterday, I had never eaten sopaipillas pasadas. I was convinced by a friend once to try picarones pasados, which are similar, but more ring-shaped. The sauce that makes them pasadas, made of chancaca, a dark brown brick of sugar that in this case is dissolved in water, and boiled with orange peels, cloves and maybe cinnamon, is not to my liking. It’s thick and syrupy, and I like my fried things crisp, not sodden. What’s the point of all that oil if it just collapses back onto itself, I thought?
In the time since then, I have written about sopaipillas pasadas on more than one occasion, even developing a recipe for them, but suggesting that they be dipped in, rather than soaked in the syrup, but that is a personal preference, and I have been told by several Chileans, is just plain wrong. I was at a talk by Pebre, a group that promotes homestyle Chilean cooking at a recent event at Ñam, and the cooks were basically crowdsourcing, asking Chileans what was special about the Chilean table. And you could almost feel a ripple of nostalgia. No one puts down as many salads as we do, no one dresses their salad with lemon, no one serves the kind of bread we do. All this over the smell of carbonada cooking, a kind of brothy soup made with stew meat, layered over the Chilean sofrito, this with peppers and onions and ají de color (paprika), and cumin seed, parts of a type of Chilean garam masala, if you will, which we call aliño completo (complete seasoning), which contains only these things, oregano and garlic, as if you would never need anything else.
And I got to thinking again, about a longstanding pet project of mine, talking to people about food nostalgia. Because the things you eat aren’t just what they taste like, they are what they remind you of, of the context in which you first (or last) ate them. They are my Chilean friend in Montreal biting into a completo (Chilean hot dog, with avocado, mayonnaise, tomatoes, ketchup and mustard), and drinking a cup of hot tea, closing her eyes for just a second, and I know, even sitting across the table that this completo has hit the spot. They are a friend holding a camping cup full of tea after a long hike that has deposited us beside a waterfall in complete darkness, and saying, “Que reconfortante,” (how soothing). It doesn’t matter what is in her hands, or in his cup. What matters is that there is this enveloping sensation that settles down like a warm blanket, that says, “you are home.”
But like the Tren de Los Recuerdos, which I joked was the train of other people’s memories, this dish, sopaipillas pasadas, was not designed for me. As part of Ñam, there was catering, and they made very tiny sopaipillas and doused them with the aforementioned sauce, and set them out on a table, and everyone first asked what it was, because the sopaipillas were so small, and the format could also have been mote con huesillo ( a drink which I actually do like, and have even created my own nostalgia for).
I took a dish and went outside, to try my ridiculously delayed bite of sopaipillas pasadas. I had to fight a little, as the sopaipillas were not entirely soaked through, and when I finally took a bite, I sort of got it. There’s still a little crunchy layered flakiness to the sopaipilla, a spiced warmth to the goopy syrup. I tried to receive the nostalgia of the hundred or so people around me, all eating the same food. But it was not raining, and there was nary a grandmother to be found, or at least not mine.
So what I got instead of that community nostalgia was, tastes like chinese noodles in duck sauce.
But not to Chileans it doesn’t. To the ones who love sopaipillas pasadas it tastes like rain and winter and comfort.
I could sit and lament my lack of connection with the sopaipilla pasada lovers, how I’ll never understand Chile, never get the nostalgia of the food, despite living here for so long. Or I could, like I generally do, surround myself with like-minded people, including Chilean friends who, upon hearing this story, said things like “the world is divided between those who like sopaipillas pasadas and those who like them plain. Luckily, the latter are the majority,” and my favorite of all comments, which sounds better in Spanish, so I’ll type it in the original first, “me cargan las sopaipillas pasadas.” (I can’t stand sopaipillas pasadas). Makes me wonder as a sub-sub project, what other nostalgic foods are out there that have a upstream contingent that can’t stand them, either.
Possible future project: finding Chileans who don’t like marraquetas (the semi-official national bread, similar to French bread rolls).
PD (PS), Ñam has a market of products from all over Chile as well as food trucks on Friday, Saturday and Sunday (April 17-19, 2015), on Cerro Santa Lucía, enter from Alameda. I can’t speak to the quality of the food trucks, but the market has been interesting in past years, and the people selling goods quite willing to chat. Starts at noon.