A Sharing Tradition

P1050734My favourite thing about food is sharing. Food is one of the few things that brings people together in this world. Everyone has to eat, and eating together is always better than eating alone. Some of my closest friendships were made over food and the diverse conversation the topic of food can ignite.

So I was delighted to discover the tradition of kefir sharing in Chile. Most of you, especially those of you swept up by the trendy, healthy lifestyle wave, will probably be familiar with kefir. You can buy it in health food shops or organic supermarkets in Sydney nowadays… if you’re willing to pay an arm and a leg. But for those who aren’t, kefir is a drink similar to yoghurt made from inoculating sheep, goat or cow milk with “kefir grains”; a wonderful symbiotic relationship between yeast and lactic acid bacteria. Studies show this is a drink packed with vitamins, minerals and probiotic goodies and it’s super easy to make. Kefir originated in Eastern Europe and potentially arrived in Chile with migrants from the Ottoman Empire. It is thought that traditionally people fermented kefir in skin sacks suspended in the door way so people would knock it when they walked through the door, keeping the grains and the milk well homogenised.


Here, kefir goes by the name of “pajaritos” meaning little birds. It’s common to see them fermenting on someone’s kitchen bench. Normally, if someone wants a starter, they’ll know someone who has, or knows someone else who has, a batch brewing they can get some from. These little beauties grow fast in hot weather, feeding off the sugars and other components in the milk. So in summer it’s common to have excess grains to give away. None of this overpriced, small-packaged nonsense in fancy, upper-class shops! Producers in Australia must be making a packet from those health-crazed Sydneysiders…

If you’re lucky enough to have your own batch of pajaritos, here’s some tips for keeping them healthy and some ideas for incorporating kefir into your day to day diet:

  • For best results and kefir health, ferment in a non-reactive container such as a glass (I have mine in an old jam jar) or ceramic. Same goes for when you are straining them; use a plastic sieve and spoon instead of metal.
  • Fermentation can take between 24 hours and several days depending on the temperature. If you keep it on the kitchen bench, leave it out of the sun to prevent drying and denaturing of the proteins. In summer in Santiago de Chile we’ve been averaging temperatures of 30 degrees so I’ve been straining the pajaritos almost every day, yielding a pretty decent daily supple of kefir. My digestive system is working a treat!
  • If you want to slow down the fermentation process, pop the batch in the fridge. Cooler temperatures result in slower reaction times. This is handy if you are going away for a weekend or your pajaritos are working faster than you can drink.
  • Kefir is suitable for people who are lactose intolerant. Because the bacteria is a lactic acid bacteria most of the lactose in the milk is broken down to lactic acid during the fermentation process. The yeast also converts some lactose to carbon dioxide and ethanol. No, you can’t get drunk off kefir; the ethanol content is usually less than 1 percent.
  • If you’re worried about fat content, have no fear. These guys will ferment full cream or reduced fat milk.
  • There are so many ways to use kefir in your daily diet. I keep stumbling on new recipes and ideas. Here are my favourites:
    • Great, cheap substitute for yoghurt to pour over cereal, fruit or in smoothies
    • Can be used in baking as a starter for sourdough bread or as a substitute for buttermilk (although it will result in a sourer flavour so keep this in mind if using as a substitute)
    • In salad dressings, in cold soups or to tenderise meat instead of yoghurt
    • If you are into soaking whole grains like oats and barley before eating, try soaking them in kefir instead of water. Kefir helps remove some of the phytic acid in these guys which potentially decreases mineral absorption during digestion.
    • Soaking muesli along with apple juice to make bircher
    • Or give your digestive system a morning kick start by drinking a glass of kefir straight up. If it’s too sour you can always add a teaspoon of honey to sweeten things up!

Most importantly, if you have a batch growing in your kitchen, share it with your friends and family! As a recently graduated student I can tell you that there’s nothing like free food. So spread some foodie love and let those pretty pajaritos fly!


Am I a cultured person: Living in Chile part 1

Moving to another country isn’t just about learning the language and how the taxation system works. You actually have to learn social interactions all over again. I feel like I’m in kindy and the teacher is telling me how to play nice with other kids. Except there is no teacher and I’m working it out on my own. Pretty much every day I learn something new through trial and error. But mostly error. Here are a couple of things I learnt about Chilean culture this month:

  1. Everything in Chile is small

Or so I thought. Chileans add the diminutive “-ito” to the end of pretty much every noun. The first time we went to markets to buy fruit and veg, José asked for a “kilito” of cherries. My inner nerd freaked out. How can you have a little kilo of something? It’s a standard measure of weight! And I really want a whole kilo of those cherries, they are so cheap and delicious….

José had to explain to me that, in Chile, everything is small.

For example instead of saying “jugo” (juice), a Chilean would say “jugito”. At first I was bewildered that everyone was offering me small-sized portions. Do they think I’m fat? I know I’m taller than most women here, but geez, gimme a regular-sized juice, please!

I still haven’t quite caught on.

  1. The equivalent of a handshake in Chile is a kissawkward-kiss-little-girl

I am not a shy person. I like to meet new people. I usually have something to say when I’m at a party and enjoy making friends. But since moving to Chile, there’s nothing I can think of that’s more intimidating. Whenever we go to a party I spend about a minute psyching myself up just to say hello.

Let me explain this transformation.

When saying hello to anyone it is customary, especially as a woman, to kiss them on the cheek. Not that this was big news to me, since it’s a pretty common cultural act around the world. However, I grew up in a country where people shake hands a metre apart. So no matter how aware I was of “the kiss” I still cannot get used to going to a party and KISSING EVERYONE. And not just at parties. Once we went to José’s mum’s office and I had to kiss every people in her department.

You may think I’m overreacting, but there is some serious skill involved here, one that I haven’t had the time to hone like everyone else in this country. Here are some ways a simple kiss on the cheek can go horribly wrong:

  • Both participants go in for “the kiss” the same way and you end up doing a Bollywood dance with your head in an effort not to kiss on the lips accidently
  • You go in too hard and end up jabbing them in the face with your nose. Not a good way of making friends, trust me
  • The first time I experienced “the kiss” I mistook it for a hug and the other person kissed me in the ear
  • Hand placement is important, people. A lot of hand-eye coordination is involved with this aspect of “the kiss”. Usually I go for the opposite shoulder to the cheek I’m aiming to kiss and, in my experience, they go for the waist. But I’ve had a few awkward hand-placement malfunctions when the other person went for the shoulder too and we ended up jabbing each other’s hands with our fingers.
  1. Complementing people’s jewellery, clothes etc. is not a good way of making small talk

Chilean mums keep giving me things. So far I have accumulated in gifts: 2 pairs of earrings; a t-shirt; a dress; and a jumper (almost). I’ve been here 3 weeks.

How? By complementing their stuff. Trying to make small talk with people you don’t know is a challenge for most people, let alone if you don’t speak the same language. My go-to polite conversation with new people in Australia has always been “Oh, those earrings are lovely!” followed by some chit chat on where they are from, made-of, signify, etc.

In Chile this tactic failed me. One of the first conversations I had with José’s mum was about how I thought her amber earrings were pretty. That was just about the limit of my Spanish at the time and I wanted to use it.

She gave them to me. Not the outcome I was expecting and a little embarrassing considering I’d just met her. I tried to refuse them but she wasn’t having any of that. Reluctantly I accepted them, thanked her profusely and made a point of wearing them out to dinner.

Maybe I’m one of those people that just never learns. A couple of weeks later we went to José’s mate’s birthday party. All his family was there. Once again, I tried my “fool proof” small talk tactic on his mum. Literally the first thing I said to her after “hola” and “nice to meet you” was “lovely earrings”. It was met with “here have them, I’ve got lots”. I now have a beautiful set of evil eye earrings.

Am I a horrible person? Am I exploiting the people of the developing world, like so many whiteys before me? To be fair, it probably wasn’t very hard for the Spaniards to conquer that part of the world. I’m guessing it went something like this:

Spaniard: I like your gold, it’s really pretty.

El dorado-ian: Seriously? You’re so sweet. Here, have it. I’ve got plenty.

Spaniard: Oh well in that case, I love your land. It’s so lush and abundant.

El dorado-ian: Ah well, um, here, take it.

Spaniard: Don’t mind if I do. Here, have some small pox. Token of my gratitude.

I think I’ll just stick with the weather from now on.