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I am traveling to the north shore of Isla Grande on a mission to try curanto , a traditional dish wherein red meat, seafood, and potatoes are cooked underground in a wood-fire pit coated with leaves. It is a bombshell, indeed. After a weeklong scavenger hunt looking for a person or place that would cook up the stuff, I enlist the help of my hostel staff and land upon a friendly-seeming home restaurant in Ancud: El Meson Chilote.
I catch him in the midst of stage one of the curanto process: firing up the stone-filled pit using flaming chunks of wood. The word "curanto," after all, translates to "hot rock.
With impressive speed he extracts the wood, tossing each part into a rusted wheelbarrow—a helpful, albeit inanimate, sous chef. A melange of ingredients are then added to the ditch: nalca leaves, a mountain of mussels, handfuls of clams, and whole potatoes. I ask if I can lend any help. He raises his hands in a quick gesture, revealing calloused, black-pitched palms. I take this for a no. Within seconds Luis is adding an onslaught of new ingredients: chicken breasts, slabs of pork, and gasp!
His approach is loose, admirably casual, and involves zero utensils or timers. Atop this assemblage of meat and seafood, Luis places a damp towel. Then come the potato dumplings. Pre-rolled gobs of milcao and chapalele dough—made of potatoes, flour, and water—are plucked from a tray and added to the food heap.
Luis pats them down with his bare hands, covering them with another towel. In a snap, he has tugged at the all-encompassing nalca leaves and the whole chabang is wrapped. It looks like a funny vegetal knapsack. The last step involves rectangular pieces of tierra —literally, earth—that are thrown onto the pit, trapping any escaping smoke and insulating all the ingredients. The smell is absolutely acrid. If a copywriter were to describe this odor and translate into a marketable scent, it would go something like "Herby Earth Funk" or "Muskier Than Thou Musk.