by Kimi Eisele
Yamila El-Khayat remembers sitting in the back of the festival booth at Tucson Meet Yourself as a young girl. Her mother and aunt and other Chilean women prepared and sold Chilean food every year at the festival until the 1990s.
“They did most of the prep work at home, in advance,” El-Khayat said. “I remember getting picked up from school.and my mom would just smell like onions. When we’d get home to the kitchen, it was boring because we weren’t allowed to touch anything or help.”
This year El-Khayat and her husband, Sammy Castillo are bringing the booth back. They’re calling the booth “La Fondita Chilena,” after the fondas de 18 de septiembre, food booths that line the streets of Chile on September 18, the national independence day.
“The festival was a lot more intimate back then. You could hear what was happening on the stage from the booth.”
Though her mom worked in the booth, El-Khayat says most of what she learned about Chilean cooking she learned from her aunt Juanita in Santiago, Chile, where she goes every year to visit. She learned to make empanadas de queso, bread pockets filled with cheese and deep fried, and empanadas de pino, which are filled with beef, sautéed onions, salt, cumin, Chilean oregano, and paprika. “The beef empanadas are folded in a special way,” El-Khayat said. “Two folds at the sides and one at the top.”
They’ll also be serving humitas, made with corn masa and similar to a Mexican-style tamale, but with distinct flavor from the corn, basil, and paprika, she said.
For dessert, El-Khayat’s husband, Sammy Castillo, a Mexican who’s taken to Chilean food and culture, is preparing a Biscocho de Durazno, a peach cake, made with peaches, syrup, merengue, and manjar de leche, a caramel-like confection made from sweetened milk.
El-Khayat said she worries the old timers and the Chilean community might be critical of the food. “But we can’t do everything the same. We have hundreds of things to make.”
Plus, she said, the ingredients are slightly different than in Chile. Instead of a mixture of ground beef and beef strips, she’s only using ground beef in the empanadas, for instance. “But we did bring oregano from Chile,” she said. “It has to be that.”
To make sure they’re ready for the festival, they’ve purchased an industrial fryer and oven and plan to do a lot of the preparation work in advance. Her kitchen, El-Khayat said, will be filled with the smell of onions.
“My kids are into it, but I do have to tell them, ‘No touching.’ I’m becoming my mother!” she added, laughing.
El-Khayat’s mother, Argelia, will be working the cash register at the festival booth.
But that’s not the team’s only support. Since announcing plans for the booth, El-Khayat said the now adult children of those who once ran the booth have been contacting her offering well wishes and helping hands.
“We’ve reactivated all the chilenos,” said Castillo. “The Chilean population here, everyone feels part of this family.”