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Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Latest Culinary Craze from South America


I’ve long been a fan of paprika, however, this one is like no other.  I was introduced to Merquén in 2006 in Chile.  One of the country’s best chefs used it in salmon dish at a lunch I attended….it was love at first bite.  I was so enamored with the seasoning that I had our driver stop at the nearest supermarket in Santiago where I bought every bag they had…all 25.  I gave them to all my foodie friends back home, but not one had ever heard of it.

Two years later Merquén (also called merken), came out of the culinary closet at the Fancy Food Show in NYC.  The biggest culinary extravaganza probably in the world, this show boasts over 6,000 booths of gourmet products.  Who’s Who of the cooking world attends.  In 2008, Merquén became one of the stars of the show when one of Chile’s star chefs used the spice in a cooking seminar.

Merquén is a mixture of dried and smoked Chilean peppers that has been seasoned with toasted cumin, coriander seeds and salt.    The base of this ethereal seasoning is a smoked pepper  “cacho de cabra.”  These green peppers are left to hang on their vine until  they turn a deep crimson color, then they are painstakingly smoked over a wood fire.  The process is long and arduous.  The results are magic.

The spice is indigenous to the Mapuche, the native people of Central Chile. The paprika-like blend adds heat, an intense smoky flavor, saltiness and a subtle but complex aroma to foods.  It is commonly found on just about everything from meat and seafood to vegetables, savory pies and stews.  At the Fancy Food Show they even used it on cheese…and it worked.

Merquén has been embraced by Chilean and international chefs which has led to Merquén-infused olive oil, Merquén flavored pepper, etc.  It’s now being used as a dry rub for meat, fowl and fish, as well as added to cerviche, as well as on peanuts or olives.  If you’re not coming on the March tour to Chile & Argentina, you can find it online at LaTienda.com under "merken."

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