Dad hurries to the grocery store after work. It’s rush hour, or la hora del taco, in Chile. The store is packed, and only a few discs of pan amasado remain, but fresh bread is a must for once—the Chilean afternoon teatime.
At home, Mom is already setting the table. Eight olive-checkered placemats are set. Plates of sliced avocado, cheese, cookie biscuits, and a kettle for tea sit scattered carefully around the table. A basket for bread in the kitchen is still empty and expectant, and beside it, its perfect condiment is ready to be placed—Mom’s signature pebre.
Pebre is the salsa commonly paired with bread that’s both uniquely Chilean and unique to their home. At its most basic, pebre typically includes a finely chopped mix of fresh cilantro, onion, garlic, oil, vinegar, and ají pepper. It’s a vibrant flavor combination of tang and savoriness and a delicate panache of spice. The flavor still rings clear as a memory from my years of living there—a flavor so quintessentially Chilean.
You will find, however, that no two pebres are exactly alike. For instance, now the vast majority add diced tomato, though not everyone prefers to; some add a splash of lemon or lime juice, while others play with the type of ají pepper or seasonings. There’s no one true version; each family, home, and restaurant has their own recipe, authentic to them, where subtle changes are made.
To illustrate this, I asked three friends in different parts of Chile what the ingredient list in their pebre recipe looks like, and these are the results:
As you can see, depending on both the region and who’s preparing, pebre variations can be quite unique. The question of what pebre should look like has no single answer. Pebre is like a statement, or signature, individual to each family or establishment; it’s a salsa that inspires creativity.
As a very generalized note, Chilean cuisine is known for favoring mild flavors, which may speak to why such a hallmark spicy condiment there is paired with a substantial white bread and subtly sweet, fatty butter as opposed to the mere flimsy chip. Pebre certainly complements bread well, too. The bread doesn’t take anything away from the dynamic pebre; rather, it humbly enhances the salsa with its softly sweet and buttery flavor.
Though pebre is most commonly dyadic to bread, it’s also a very versatile salsa. Seen as a regular on kitchen tables across Chile, you’ll see people spooning it on top of a variety of foods, from barbeque to empanadas, to potatoes, and more. Pebre tends to go nicely with nearly everything; it’s that fun, fresh, and comparatively hot guest that everyone wants at their party.
It’s true: Pebre is a staple condiment also seemingly omnipresent in restaurants. Take a seat at almost any restaurant in Chile, and, next to the cruets of oil and vinegar, you’ll see small trays of butter and pebre, ready to be amply consumed with fresh bread. Many even skip the butter altogether, diving straight into the pebre. Pebre really is the butter to Chile’s bread.
Meanwhile, instead served with chips, meat, or rice dishes, Mexico’s pico de gallo is frequently compared to pebre due to its like consistency. However, while pico de gallo shares cilantro, onion, and sometimes lime with pebre, it’s guided by jalapeno for its spice. Brazil’s vinaigrette is likewise named in relation to pebre as a chunky salsa that uses oil and vinegar to mix the chopped ingredients together. The vinaigrette relies on bell peppers, though, and is traditionally served with black bean stew or grilled meat.
Naturally, each South American salsa tends to do its own thing. Ingredients aside, while pebre is occasionally compared and contrasted with other South American salsas, it stands unique largely thanks to its bready counterpart, ubiquity, and interminable number of recipes.
Back at home, Dad finally arrives with the fresh bread, and it’s quickly ushered alongside the pebre as the table’s centerpiece. A little shouting ensues to call everyone in, and finally, once begins. The atmosphere is boisterous and full of laughter; everyone talks over one another, but all manage a chance to share about their day—a faint gargle of the TV running in the background. Spoonfuls of pebre moisten each crumbly bite of bread, offering a burst of flavor lively enough to match the mood.
Such is a quotidian afternoon in Chile—bread, pebre, and a whole lot of love make up a portrait that’s representative of so many households throughout the country.
Whether served during a weeknight at home, restaurant meal, or fiesta, pebre is truly ubiquitous in Chile. It’s a fresh and flavorful condiment without any pretentiousness, used to dress up even the most modest pairings. Pebre can do anything—belong anywhere. Try it yourself, wherever you are in the world, and see what Chile’s pebre can bring to your home.