We’ve got that. Or maybe we don’t. Adventures in linguistic and culinary Chile

Where our protagonist goes to the supermarket with one idea for birthday cupcake decoration and comes out surprisingly Chilenized.

I had my first Chilean linguistic/cultural confusion in a long time a few weeks ago. In keeping with what a fabulous time my niece and I had had making and decorating cupcakes for the family when I was in San Francisco, I volunteered to make “quequitos” for a friend’s birthday. Quequitos, the diminutive of queque, are how we refer to cupcakes. It’s not that cupcakes are part of the Chilean diet, but there are small, tough cakes cooked in a muffin tin that people sell on the street (yay, more street food), so they’re not totally alien, either. I’ve had good experiences in the past making various baked goods for Chilean friends, including all manner of crisps, crumbles, cobblers, carrot cake and chocolate pound cake. So I had every reason to think the cupcakes would be a success.

So I went out to the baking supply store on Puente (the one that says Ambrosoli on it, but that can’t be what it’s called, because that’s a brand of (mediocre) chocolate), and bought size 8 cupcake liners. A hundred of them. Now that’s a lot of liners. I then went to one of the many birthday stores in the area. These are stores set up around what you need for (birthday) parties. There are party favors, plastic cutlery, paper plates, streamers, bags of balloons, and of course, candles. There are candles at the supermarket as well, but I didn’t anticipate having to go to the supermarket, so I thought I’d just get some candles and be done with it.

I went home and baked many, many cupcakes, a bit slowly, because my cupcake pan only makes six at a time, since my old oven was too small to hold a 12-cupcake tin. It was cold out, so running the oven for extra time was actually a bit of a luxury. And while the cupcakes were baking, I made royal icing. And then I rooted around for the food coloring. Root, root, root. Not near the flour, not with the baking supplies, not in the spice cabinet. Root root. I used to have it and now I didn’t. Maybe it got lost in the move? Maybe I threw it away in an attempt to be more all-natural?

No worry, I thought, scooping the icing into a plastic container, packing some icing bags and icing tips into a bag along with the cooled cupcakes. I’ll go to the grocery store and buy food coloring. I can mix it up at the cumpleañero‘s (birthday boy’s) house.

Here’s where the confusion starts. So I went to my local supermarket and poked around all the likely locations. Near the spices, near the flour, near the candy. Hmmm. And I found nothing. A restocking person and a superviser where standing there, so I thought to ask.

Me: Tienen colorantes? (do you have food coloring?)
Supermarket workers (SW): “Colorantes?” (food coloring?)
Me: Sí, es un liquido, viene en frasco chiquitito, son 4, vienen en una cajita así. (yeah, it’s a liquid, comes in little bottles, there’s usually four of them, they come in a small box like this)
SW: blank stare
Me: Son de esta marca. (They’re this brand (pointing to a particular brand)
SW: Para que son? (what are they for?)

Here’s where I realize how weird it sounds to say I’m baking cupcakes for a friend and I want them to be funny colors.

Me: Son para teñir la crema de un pastel para un niño. (They’re to dye the frosting for a child’s cake)
SW: Habían (we used to have some)
Me: y ahora? (but now…?)
SW: una señora los compró. (A lady bought them)
Me: mmm, y dónde vive? (so, where does she live?) (I was kidding here)
SW: nervous smile
Me: Gracias. Bueno, y si no hay nada para teñir la crema, será blanca, no más. (ok, if there’s nothing to color the frosting, it will just be white.
SW: Ah sí, claro que hay. (Oh sure, of course there is).
Me: follows SW, who points to two colors of dyed flaked coconut, pink and green, and multicolored sprinkles.
SW: Ves? (see?)

Here’s where I realize I have many options, (pitch a fit, complain, go to another supermarket, leave the cupcakes white), none of which are probably going to result in me with a box of four tiny bottles of food coloring and prettily-colored cupcakes. So I did what you do in these situations, and bought the dyed flaked coconut (green of course, as the cumpleañero is a boy) and the sprinkles, and I thanked everyone heartily and went off to decorate cupcakes and leave SW1 and SW2 to ponder why ever you’d think of decorating your cupcakes any other way.

And here’s what a regular birthday cake looks like in Chile, if you were wondering. And I have, of course, since found the food coloring, not in the drawer of danger, like you’d expect, but inside the pasta collander. And no, I have not eaten pasta since I’ve been in this apartment. Or at least I have not drained it well. And a better-stocked supermarket would have had them, but here in Plaza Italia pa’bajo, odd-mostly-gringo foodstuffs are hit and miss.

On Supermarkets and My Cachito de Poder

Of all the things to be concerned about concerning changing apartments (will my stuff arrive? will it fit? will the internet ever be hooked up, is there a secret infestation of curly-antennae’d bugs? yes, yes, yes no), my mother was concerned about whether or not there would be a supermarket nearby. This is understandable, I suppose. First of all, in the United States, one tends to buy most of one’s food from the supermarket. Plus there are some neighborhoods in the US, even in major cities, where supermarket access is a concern. I don’t have a car, so certainly living far away from a supermarket with your United States brain on would seem like a problem. Though I do have a bike, and that’s nearly always what I use to go to the supermarket. My mother lives in the ‘burbs, and doesn’t ride a bike. All of it terribly understandable, really.

Have no fear. I have discovered, since moving to my new apartment that I am less than a ten minute bike ride from at least six supermarkets.

Santa Isabel on Huerfanos
Santa Isabel on Alameda
Santa Isabel on Cumming
Santa Isabel in Estación Central
Santa Isabel on Almirante Latorre
Tottus in Barrio Brasil
Tottus on Nataniel Cox

There are also smaller minimarkets, including the strangely-named Spin, which is very close by, and which claims to sell suchis. I have not eaten any suchis from there, but they have that Breden Master bread that is sweeping the city which means they pop it in the oven in the back and it’s fresh and piping hot several times a day. Yummy all white marraquetas. Just what your glycemic index ordered.

There’s also the handy OK-Market (no fresh food at all, strangely), the Tian-Yuan smallish market on Brasil, a new Unimarc that used to be something else on the Alameda near República, and a market called Linder in the same font as Lider over in Barrio Brasil. There’s probably more but you can be assured that there is no shortage of places to buy food in the new neighborhood. Also like the supermarkets in DC, all of which have silly code names like the Soviet Safeway (Dupont, 17th St) and the Social Safeway (Wisconsin Ave), I am working on a nomenclature system for each one of the supermarkets and/or minimarkets. Hint: the Estación Central Santa Isabel’s name will not have the word “safe” in it.

But choosing “my” super, in that I don’t have to leave the neighborhood to get there, that I have my favorite post to which to lock my bike (no, not those ridiculously useless bike lock up racks where the only thing you can lock is your front wheel, where do they think we are, some kind of bike-theft free zone?) is clearly the one on Almirante LaTorre. It has a bowling alley upstairs, and is across from a darned good sandwich shop (links to NileGuide). It’s also the only place where I’ve ever been that when they want to close out a cash register line, they give the last person in line a sign that says “Caja Cerrada” (register closed).

I think this is tremendously intelligent, stops people from getting cozy behind you and then having to listen to the cashier shout from three carts down “caja cerrada, está cerrada la caja“. Plus it was fun to have the sign in hand, hold it up and point at it. I also liked the fact that the cashier thought me worthy of explaining the protocol and handing the sign to. He didn’t wait for someone more obviously Chilean-looking to hand the sign to, just handed it to me, and said, “after you, the line’s closed.”

I call this my cachito de poder (tiny bit of power) because for a few minutes there, no one was getting through line number 14 without my approval. Unfortunately, I had to give the sign back when I left. It’s too bad because preventing people from standing behind me in line and hitting my feet with their cart or getting too close in general could be a great superpower. I guess I’ll just have to go back to the supermarket with more frequency. At least until I think of a good name for it.