Pablo Neruda describes the Temuco of his childhood as “a pioneering city, without a past but with hardware shops”. Although modernization has changed this image of the city, a visit to the market still transports you to a different world. Temuco is chaotic and full of colorful merchandise. This is partly due to the high concentration of Mapuche Indians in the area, who come to the market to sell their blue eggs, handmade fabrics, traditional musical instruments, Araucana chickens and bags upon bags of merkén, a smoked chili pepper that fills the air with sweet and spicy aromas.
Merkén is primarily made of a long, pointed chili pepper called aji, or caciocavra in local dialect. The pepper is grown throughout the region and is gathered in February, when it turns from bright green to red. After the harvest, the caciocavra is dried in the sun until it becomes violet-colored. The dried chilies are smoked for half an hour and then hung from ceilings in wicker baskets directly over a wood fire. After being dried in the sun a second time, the aji is finely ground, in the past with a stone mortar, today mostly in an automatic grinder. Lightly smoked coriander seeds and sea salt are then added to the aji powder. Merkén always contains at least 70% chili powder and never more than 20% salt.
The spice produced is used to flavor soups, meats, omelets and salads, and used to be found on every kitchen table. Today, its use is declining, particularly in cities where, for various reasons, merkén has become a symbol of the poverty of the past, an expression of Indian culture that they would rather leave behind.
Merkén is a flavorsome, hot and strong-smelling mix of spices that serves as an ideal seasoning for grilled, roasted and stewed meat, as well as fish and vegetables. It can also be used to flavor creamed potatoes or to add aroma to other cooked dishes.
Nagche and Wenteche territories, IX region (Araucania)
Presidium supported by
Andrea Beatriz Ghiselini Oyarzún