Invoking the expression “to be born with a marraqueta under his/her arm” in Chile is to speak of a child that has their future assured. It’s a little more common than a silver spoon in one’s mouth, and far more democratic, as the marraqueta, pan batido or pan francés — as it’s called outside of the capital city of Santiago, where I live — is a staple food eaten sometimes as many as three times a day.
The bread likely dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century, when Europeans immigrated to Chile through its then-most-important-port city of Valparaíso. One theory has a duo of brothers called “Marraquette” arriving from France and baking this bread, which came to be called the marraqueta. Its characteristic four-roll shape is made by pressing together two balls of dough, then nearly splitting them down the middle lengthwise before baking. Both the marraqueta and French bread generally contain only water, flour, salt and yeast, and both are baked in an oven with a pan of water, which creates steam, for a hearty crust.
This crust is the most popular part of the marraqueta. Some people pull out the fluffy miga (crumb) before eating it, either to set it aside for later, or to toss it completely, which reduces the bread’s weight by some 30 percent, saving calories and improving the spread-to-crust ratio. Children in Chile roll the miga into balls and figurines. Some of my friends reported having used it to erase pencil marks in their elementary school days. I pull out the miga if I’m using the marraqueta for a sandwich, so there’s more room for the filling. In my own kitchen, I also do the very un-Chilean thing of saving the miga to make breadcrumbs, which here are called “grated bread” (pan rallado).
So important is the marraqueta to Chilean national identity that for the past five years that Indupan, an organization that represents bakers in Santiago, has held a contest to find the best locally made marraquetas sold the city.
The organization’s judges look at the bread’s volume, color, shine, crunchiness and thickness of the crust. The color and structure of the often-tossed or mashed crumb is also under scrutiny. In 2015, the winning bread was made by a local baker in the outlying comuna (neighborhood) of La Granja; the remaining top 10 bakeries are sprinkled around the other more traditional areas of the city. The prize, besides the adulation of many a Santiaguino, was a brand new bread delivery van.
Marraquetas are so universal that they even figure in the 2012 movie No, which tells the story of the 1988 plebiscite in which Chile voted out the dictator Augusto Pinochet, who came to power through a military coup in 1973. In the movie, an ad executive berates an assistant for putting a baguette in a picnic basket for a commercial, saying, “I don’t care if it looks good, nobody eats baguettes in this country. It’s missing identity. … Get me some pan amasado (a rustic bread), some marraqueta.” And the marraqueta is the most popular bread in Chile, a country where bread consumption is more than 200 pounds per person, per year, placing Chile among the top bread consumers in the world.
When there’s fresh bread, some local stores will put out sign that says, “hay pan,” which is the Chilean equivalent of the light being on at Krispy Kreme. At times when bread delivery or baking has been disrupted, there is no substitute. On one such day at my then-local bakery, people stood at the bread bins, saying to each other, “no hay pan.” There was sliced bread just above the bins, in shiny cellophane packages. But most people walked away empty-handed. If it’s not fresh, it’s not “pan de verdad” (real bread).
Most of my friends who now live elsewhere — both Chileans and foreigners — cite the marraqueta as something they miss when they are not in Chile. They talk about eating it hot from the bag on the way home from the bakery, or once home, with butter, with scrambled eggs tucked inside, or around a sausage as part of choripan, the essential first step to every Chilean barbecue. Or simply as part of breakfast or evening tea, with mashed avocado on top, a tradition that people remember from their childhoods, thus predating the modern-day avocado toast craze.
Yet as popular as this bread is, home bakers in Chile don’t often make it. For one thing, it requires an overnight rise, and to get the texture right for the crust and crumb, you need the right kind of oven, and the aforementioned steam. The only people I’ve come across who make marraquetas at home are Chilean expats living in the United States, like Pilar Hernandez, whose popular blog, En Mi Cocina Hoy, features many Chilean recipes, including one for marraquetas. She says her husband makes them just a few times a year, but that they don’t let their daughters (aged 6 and 11) play with the miga because it is “too precious [in Texas].” The kids eat the marraquetas, miga and all.
And why bother baking these delicacies at home when in most places in Chile about 60 cents will get you two marraquetas (comprised of four rolls) weighing nearly half a pound? Buying marraquetas is, quite simply, pan comido, an expression that is translated to mean “a piece of cake,” but which means literally, “bread that is eaten.” So very simple.
Eileen Smith is originally from Brooklyn, and has been living in Santiago, Chile since 2004. She writes for guidebooks, magazines and websites, mainly about food, linguistics, culture and travel. She blogs about her expat experience in Chile at www.bearshapedsphere.com.