Dave and I were in Chile earlier this year hiking in Torres del Paine National Park. Every evening, whether we were dining in the dining room at the EcoCamp or dining in one of the refugios along The Paine Circuit, there was a bowl of Merkén (or Merquén) to be found on the table. Merkén is a chile pepper blend that has been made by the indigenous Mapuche tribe for ages but which has recently become a popular seasoning enjoyed throughout Chile. I found myself requesting it every morning to spice up the bland scrambled eggs that we were served to fuel us for the day's hike. Scrambled eggs are not one of my favorite things, but when piled on top of cheese with a dash of Merkén and perched upon a slice of the usually blah buttered toast, breakfast became something more than just fuel for the trail.
Unfortunately we spent all of our time in Chile in the park so there wasn't an opportunity to shop and stock up on a stash of Merkén to take home. When I got home I did a bit of research, which started with trying to figure out what the name of the spice blend is (they told me but I didn't write it down and so I forgot). That took a bit of rooting around on the web but I finally found what I was looking for. Merkén is made in two basic formulations, natural - which is just ground chiles and salt, or especial - which is ground chiles with salt and coriander seeds and sometimes cumin and oregano, and sometimes other ingredients like bay and garlic.
What really makes Merkén unique is the chile peppers and how they are prepared. Aji Cacho de Cabra (Goat Horn Peppers) are the peppers grown by the Mapuche. The peppers are harvested green, allowed to ripen, then sundried, and then finally smoked over a wood fire. I wanted to make my own version of Merkén, it would certainly not be authentic, but I craved that same lovely flavor of sweet smoky spicy salty peppers and sweet and earthy spices. The Wikipedia article on Merkén says that the typical ratios for the especial mix are 70% peppers, 20% salt, and 10% coriander seed. And then I recently found a couple of Merkén recipes in Maricel Presilla's book Gran Cocina Latina (why didn't I look there first?) where she recommends using dried New Mexico chiles. I have loads of dried New Mexico chiles from my grand chile growing experiment last year. Maricel recommends using hot Spanish pimentón to lend spice and smoke to the blend, but I decided to us smoked sea salt instead. And to get some spice into the mix I used a mix of dried mild New Mexico chiles and dried Aleppo peppers (also from my garden). The result is fabulous.
I use very small quantities for my experimental batches (this is #2), but I'm actually thinking that small is the way to go because the mix will lose it aroma quite quickly if it sits around - fresh is best. It will also allow me to experiment with adding other spices to the blend, next time I'll add a touch of cumin. I also used my digitial scale which allows metric measurements, grams are so much more precise when working with small quantities. And I kept to the 70-20-10 formula so it should be easy to scale the recipe up by using the same ratios.
17 g. dried seeded Zia Pueblo peppers (or any mild New Mexico type pepper)
4 g. dried seeded Aleppo peppers (or dried cayenne peppers)
6 g. smoked sea salt (alderwood smoked Salish is good)
3 g. dried green coriander seeds (these could be toasted too)
If the peppers are leathery they need to be crisped a bit to grind properly, I placed mine on a baking sheet and put them in a 350º degree oven and then turned the heat off and let the peppers sit in the oven a few minutes, then removed them from the oven and let them cool on the baking sheet. They can also be toasted in a skillet or on a flat griddle, press the peppers onto the hot surface with a metal spatula until they are dry and slightly charred. I find it easy to burn the peppers with the griddle method so I crisp mine in the oven.
Grind the salt and coriander seed together in a spice mill (coffee grinder) until fairly finely textured. Crumble the peppers into the mill and grind the mixture to whatever consistency you desire. I like it to be between fine and coarse, with pepper flakes and small pieces of coriander still visible. I found the coriander to be too coarse and the peppers too fine when I ground them all together, that's why I grind the coriander separately first.
Makes about 1/4 cup.
The mix is great on eggs, or used as a spice rub, sprinkled on vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, tossed with roasted nuts, or sprinkled on cheese. Hmm, it might even be good on a nice cold slice of melon. Cucumbers, tomatoes, and Merkén. A dash of Merkén on hummus. Merkén and chocolate? What might it not be good on?
Update, November 2014
Oh my, this was even better made with home smoked peppers. I used the same proportions of peppers, salt, and coriander seeds, but used my smoked peppers and plain salt instead of smoked salt.