Nalca, also known as Pangue or Giant Patagonia Rhubarb, is an edible plant strongly rooted in the culture of Aysén, with gastronomic and medicinal traditions predating the modern era; reaching back to an earlier period when local inhabitants were even more closely linked with their natural environment. Each year in early spring, the nalca begin to sprout and by late November, deep dark green will fill the borders of the Carretera Austral, especially in the more humid areas. You’ll also find them bordering the coasts in Puerto Cisnes, Puerto Aysén, Puyuhuapi, Caleta Tortel and Puerto Yungay.
The most common way to eat nalca in Aysén is in its natural form, without any preparation. Just peel the skin from the young stalks and enjoy; some locals will sprinkle a bit of salt, sugar or merquen, a traditional Mapuche condiment made from ground smoked chili peppers and corriander. Nalca is also used in a variety of recipes including salads, jams, preserves, ice creams, pastries and juices. There is even a version of Chile’s famous cocktail, the pisco sour, which is made with nalca rather than the typical lemon juice.
The fibrous stalks of the nalca plant are used in most preparations, but the leaves are also used in various ways. In Melinka and Repollal Alto, the leaves are used in the preparation of smoked mussels and in curanto, a popular dish that was brought to the sector from Chiloe and enjoyed through the Guaitecas and in many other areas of the Region. In both of these preparations, the enormous leaves of the nalca are used to cover the ingredients, which are steamed or smoked underneath. Their giant mass helps keep the vapors and smoke from escaping, locking all of the delicious flavors inside. The nalca plant has many other interesting properties and uses; the leaves are boiled into a strong concentrate and used as a natural dye for wool, and the root and the stem are used in homeopathic healing to clot blood, to wash wounds, to heal mouth and throat infections, and for stomach problems.
Señora Rosa Chacano, owner of Camping Los Ñires, located ten kilometers south of Villa Cerro Castillo, is one of the Region’s experts in the preparation of nalca.
Situated in the midst of native forest and pure tranquility alongside the Carretera Austral, this oasis is a welcoming discovery for travelers who need to recharge their batteries with a good night’s sleep in a quiet camping area, be revitalized by a hot shower, or be energized with a hearty breakfast of fresh baked bread just out of the oven and, of course, her famous canned nalca, preserved in a light syrup. And that’s only the beginning of several more surprises: asados al palo in their cozy Fogón, hand-dyed and woven woolen crafts, fresh vegetables and fruits, and hiking to a Tehuelche rock-art site, hidden deep within their land.
If you time your visit with the arrival of spring, (October or November), you can accompany Don Eleuterio Calfullanca, Rosa’s husband, in the search for nalcas and afterward, assist Señora Rosa in the kitchen as she prepares her recipe for Canned Nalca in Light Syrup. Look for the most tender stalks available, ideally when the stalk has reached a good height but the leaves are still closed (like a closed umbrella). The best nalca can be found in damp places, swampy areas, or on the banks of streams and rivers, in sandy soils. Remember that Chile’s National Parks and Reserves prohibit the extraction of plants.