Piercing rays of light beamed down on the Chilean village of Villaseca as Luisa Ogalde placed a pot filled with cabrito (young goat’s meat) in an angular, transparent-topped box and angled it in the direction of the mid-morning sun. The cabrito, she explained, would stew in that box for four hours, slowly transforming into meat so juicy and tender you could slice it with a fork.
In another box nearby Ogalde placed rice, which she said would take 40 minutes to cook, and dough, which would need about an hour to become bread. Other boxes contained rabbit, chicken and pork, which would each simmer for about two hours under the fierce sunbeams that sizzle towns like this on the southern edge of the Atacama Desert.
“The benefit of living here is we have sun practically every day of the year,” said Ogalde, explaining that she uses it – instead of gas, electricity or firewood – to power her restaurant, Entre Cordillera Restobar Solar, which opened in 2018. The boxes are solar ovens and they work by heating meat the same way a parked car heats a human on a hot summer day. Ogalde has eight of them, as well as a parabolic solar cooker she uses to boil water and a solar dehydrator that lets her dry goat meat into ch’arki (jerky), which is a key ingredient in the traditional potato and pumpkin stew charquicán.
Ogalde uses the solar ovens to make other traditional stews, including beef- or chicken-based cazuela, and even desserts such as the flan-like leche asada with goat milk. “We’re rescuing all of the old recipes of the area and giving value to the homestyle foods of our grandparents,” she explained. Yet, while the recipes may be old, the way of cooking them is brand new.
Ogalde belongs to a generation of cooks who have opened solar restaurants in remote parts of Chile’s sun-baked Atacama Desert, which begins just north of Villaseca, ends at the Peruvian border and is known as the driest place on Earth. The Atacama has the planet’s highest solar radiation – 30% higher, on average, than the Mojave Desert of the US Southwest – yet few residents have harnessed that energy quite so imaginatively as these homespun chefs, who were inspired by an experiment that took place in Villaseca back in 1989.