We’re living in the age of the “global pantry,” as culture writer Navneet Alang so eloquently put it in a recent article for Eater. Now more than ever, diverse spices, seasonings, and ingredients from all over the world are finding their way into common usage in households outside of their home culture, going from little-known flavors you may only have tried at restaurants or while traveling to pantry essentials. So if you’re looking to broaden your flavor horizons and incorporate new tastes into your cooking, there’s one seasoning you should definitely know about: Merkén.
What is merkén?
Merkén, which can also be spelled as merquén, is a ground-up seasoning and spice hailing from the Mapuche people in the Araucanía Region of southern Chile. The Mapuches are Chile’s largest indigenous group, and their cuisine is deeply rooted in the earth; harvesting what is in season and maintaining a connection to nature through their food and cooking. Made using chile peppers that are smoked over a fire, merkén is one of the main condiments used in their cooking, adding a rich, smoky flavor to dishes like roasted pine nuts from the Araucaria tree or cheese.
Overall, popular Chilean cuisine is largely based on the culinary influences of the colonizing Spanish and other migrant populations like an immigration boom from Germany in the 1800s. For the most part, traditional Mapuche recipes and cuisine have not found their way into mainstream Chilean gastronomy, but merkén is the main exception. In spite of its name, Chilean food is not spicy, so merkén brings a much-needed, piquant zest to many dishes, and is now found in most Chilean kitchens. It’s available as a common spice in supermarkets, but to find the best merkén, you’d want to head to a traditional mercado or feria, where you’d be more likely to find homemade kinds brought from the south.
Over the past decade, merkén has made some headway in the U.S. market, being available for purchase online and at some specialty stores, but it’s still very much an unknown entity. With the current interest in more diverse spices and ingredients from elsewhere in the world, merkén is poised to be discovered.
What is it made of?
The primary ingredient in merkén is goat horn chile or aji cacho de cabra. A species of hot red pepper found throughout North and South America, this particular variety is native to the Araucanía region where merkén is traditionally made. To achieve the distinct texture and flavor, the ripe peppers are dried in the sun until they’re a deep, rusty-red color and have no moisture, and are then roasted/smoked over a fire. After the seeds are removed, the pepper is ground up into a fine powder and mixed with salt, coriander, and cumin. There are some variations; merkén with just salt added is known as merkén natural, as it’s a more pure, authentic flavor, and merkén especial has coriander seeds.
What can I use it on?
With its smoky, earthy flavors, merkén is incredibly versatile as a seasoning, so you can use it on anything. In Chile, it’s commonly used to season stews and soups, as a dry or spice rub for grilling meats, for sprinkling on peanuts and finger foods, as an addition to traditional condiments like pebre (a Chilean condiment that’s similar to pico de gallo) and to enhance seafood dishes.
It will also go great in sauces (this reporter uses it in place of red pepper flakes and chili powder, as it has a more nuanced flavor), and as a topping for pizza, popcorn, and other snack foods.
Is it worth the hype?
If you love fiery, smoky flavors and are looking for something new and exciting to spice up your cooking, merkén is fantastic and well worth trying out. I was raised on green chile and other spicy foods growing up in New Mexico, so when I moved to Chile a few years ago and discovered that they overall as a country didn’t like spicy foods, I quickly turned to merkén for all my cooking and spicy seasoning needs. The flavor is so much more complex than other spicy seasonings like chili powder. It tastes like a woodland campfire in your mouth; warm, comforting, and familiar. When my dad came to visit me in Chile, I quickly converted him to the cult of merkén and now it has a place of pride in my parents’ pantry as well. Having returned to the States, whenever I go back to Chile, I always make sure to stock up on bottles from my favorite local producers to bring back home. Merkén has made a convert out of me.
Plus, since it’s only just starting to gain attention outside of its home country, when your friends ask, “Oh my gosh, what did you season this with?” you get to say that you used a seasoning they’ve probably never heard of, which will give you all kinds of cooking cachet.
Where can I find it?
The best bet to find merkén around the U.S. would be to order it online. It’s available here on Amazon from a Chilean company called Etnia that works with Mapuche tribes to share traditionally made merkén and other Chilean products with a global audience, as well as supporting Mapuche communities through fair trade partnerships. It’s also available from specialty purveyors like the Savory Spice Shop.