Citizens! With Summer now in full swing, the need to BBQ courses through my veins like sweet, sweet adrenaline – and what better way to grill than with a smoky spice blend that will add unmatched heat and savor to your next meal? This is a unique condiment made with an extremely rare smoked chili from Chile – allow me to educate your mind and palate alike about this phenomenal spice blend!
Merkén or merquén (from the Mapuche mezkeñ) is a smoked chili pepper (or in Spanish, ají) used as a condiment that is often combined with other ingredients when in ground form. Merkén is a traditional condiment in Mapuche Indian cuisine in Chile.
The base ingredient of merkén is the smoked pepper “cacho de cabra” (Capsicum annuum var. lungum) a dried, smoked, red pepper that is sometimes ground with toasted coriander seed and salt. The peppers are dried naturally in the sun and are then smoked over a wood fire. They are then stored by being hung to dry prior to grinding. Once reduced to powder or flakes, the peppers are often mixed with salt and roasted ground coriander seed.
Commercially, merkén pepper with only an addition of salt is known as “natural merken” (merkén natural), while “special merkén” (merkén especial) contains coriander seeds. The composition of special merkén is about 70% chili, 20% salt, and 10% coriander seed.
Merkén originates primarily from the cuisine of the Mapuches of the Araucanía Region of Chile, but is also used in the Chilean cuisine as a replacement for fresh chili.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, merkén has drawn the attention of professional chefs and has begun to find an international market, at the same time, having a widespread use in Chilean cuisine.
Merkén is most commonly used as:
A general condiment for seasoning dishes such as lentils, gold potatoes, and sautéed vegetables
A dry rub for tuna, lamb, pork, or duck
A sprinkle, spice rub, or boiling spice for seafood including crab
An addition to stews, savory pies, and purees
A spice for ceviches
An addition to cow or goat cheese
An addition to peanuts or salty olives
As noted on fondazioneslowfood.com:
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.
The key to this simple but intensely-flavored spice blend is the pepper itself, which thankfully can be purchased in the U.S. from here.
The cacho de cabra from this vendor comes from the Maule region in the center of Chile. The harvest runs from December to March, when temperatures stay above 30° C. These high temperatures give this chile pepper its body, heat, and exceptional flavor. These peppers are harvested by hand, then allowed to sun dry naturally. After being exposed to the sun, the chilies are rested in a mud smoker, usually with local eucalyptus wood, for around a week.
I have very slightly tweaked the classic recipe by using an herbed seasoning salt instead of just straight salt – my preferred brand is this.
All told, this is a very simple recipe that will add all kinds of spicy flavor to your next meal – I hope you see fit to try it forthwith, my Citizens!
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