Every Chilean knows cazuela. Like short soup, borscht or doenjang-jjigae, it's no culinary celebrity, nor the kind of food to appear on MasterChef nor the menus of table-clothed restaurants. It's just a part of everyday life. A hearty meal eaten on lunchtime tables at home, solo at a truck stop or reheated for breakfast.
Cazuela is eaten and loved by almost everyone, with each family having their own recipe. Turkey, corn and pumpkin soup at one house; beef and potato at another; and maybe noodles, rice, beans or cabbage in others.
Margarita Garcia has never eaten a bad cazuela. She's the matriarch of the Garcia family who founded and runs Theo's Cecina, a Chilean butchery that first started in Sydney in 1986, now an institution in Sydney's South American community.
She tells us she's never had a bad cazuela after we ask her what makes a good one. "Good or bad?" she asks confused. Garcia isn't trying to say every cazuela she's eaten has been perfect (like all the ones her or her mum made), she's saying no one could possibly make a bad one. Every cazuela is delicious.
But it's not just the soup's flavour, ingredients and texture that. Cazuela is tied to Garcia's life.
Her first memories of the soup were her mother's recipes in Santiago, Chile. Garcia describes her mum making it with pumpkin, potato and corn with either chicken, turkey or beef in a huge pot. Garcia had seven siblings but even they would never be able to finish such a huge amount. Garcia's mum wasn't just cooking for the family but for friends, extended family, neighbours and all of life's extras. "My house was full of people all the time and my mum would cook for everyone. My mum liked to cook."
For most of Garcia's childhood, she would hang out in the kitchen, watching her mum cook or just wanting to be among the energy of family and friends who'd congregated there. "We lived in that kitchen," she says. But when she was around eight, that changed, she got her first cooking lesson from an unexpected place. Her father used to shoot small birds (Garcia thinks maybe they were quails, but she's not sure) and one day, he came into the kitchen holding a few of them. "He came to me, very serious, 'Margarita I want to eat a cazuela'."
"My house was full of people all the time and my mum would cook for everyone. My mum liked to cook."
She had never made cazuela and she'd never seen those birds being cooked before. "So I started to do what my mum did, take the features off, cut them like my mum does with a chicken. Just try to copy. Don't ask me how it was but I cooked those little birds."
It may sound like a gruesome or harsh lesson to some but Garcia remembers it fondly. "I think he did it to introduce me to the kitchen in a nice way. I was around eight." She laughs and says her childhood was a perfect time, full of animals, friends, games, food and adventure. "I have many, many happy memories."
Garcia left Chile in 1976 with her husband, who she'd married at 17. He had been a butcher since the age of 14, and after arriving in Australia, started working where he could (there were no South American style butcheries for him to work in four decades ago). But on the weekend, Garcia's husband and his sons would buy a whole animal from the abattoir, lug it to their Matraville apartment and skilfully transform it into blood sausages, chorizo, longaniza and all the cuts needed for a Chilean asado (a South American charcoal barbecue).
They'd have big, festive weekend barbecues, cooking up all the sausages and South American style cuts, and giving out the extras to Chilean friends. "My late husband was so friendly, my household was always full of people and I cooked for everyone."
Just like her mum before her, she'd make cazuela and, never knowing how many people would turn up, she'd make it in an enormous pot. "My cazuela was very popular [with our friends], it was because it took the time to make it, the salad and the pebre [a condiment found all over Chile usually made from fresh tomato, onion, coriander, chilli, garlic and olive oil]. They were really happy to eat good food, food that reminded them of home."
That was more than 30 years ago. Many of those people are no longer around or in Garcia's life but the ones who are, still ask her for the cazuela to this day.
Margarita Garcia's beef cazuela
- 1.5 kg beef (Osso Bucco, beef rib or lean boneless brisket)
- 6 medium potatoes, peeled and cut in half
- 6 pieces of pumpkin, sized to match the potatoes
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- ½ a carrot, thinly sliced
- 250 g green beans, finely cut
- ½ a red capsicum roughly cut
- 1 tsp oregano
- 1 tsp minced garlic
- 1 tsp chopped parsley
- 1 celery leaf
- 2 corns on the cob, each quartered
- ¾ cup of rice or 200g of angel hair pasta
1. Place the beef in 2 litres of water, bring to the boil and then simmer for 1 hour.
2. Add the onion, garlic, parsley, capsicum, carrot, pumpkin, potato, corn and celery leaf and boil for ten minutes.
3. Add the green beans, and either the rice or angel hair pasta, simmer for another 30 minutes.