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ONCE: THE HISTORY BEHIND CHILE’S TEA TIME

What is “once”?

If you’ve spent any amount of time in Chile, you’ve most likely heard of once. However, if you’re less familiar with Chilean culture, I would generally summarize it as “Chile’s version of tea time”. Each family does once differently, but this meal is typically served sometime between 5-9 p.m. The idea of a midday snack in Chile is fantastic because 1)Chileans love bread (doesn’t everyone?) and 2) Chileans love sweets (once again, don’t we all?). The food eaten at once is relatively specific, including lots of bread, avocado, jam, and tea/nescafé. While once nowadays is a family meal, it wasn’t always this G-rated. So, now that we’re familiar with the fact that Chile has a mealtime called once, where exactly did this tradition come from? 

The official definition of “once”

There are a few different theories about why this mealtime began to appear in Chile. As once means “eleven” in Spanish, the first, more proper approach says that this is a reference to the meal being eaten at 11 a.m. This also happens to be the definition of tomar once that the Real Academia Española recognizes:

Tomar un refrigerio ligero entre las once y las doce de la mañana, o a diferentes horas de la tarde, según los países.

Now, it’s all well and good that the Royal Spanish Academy (aka the institution responsible for the Spanish language) presents us with this etymology. However, my money is on the second, more scandalous theory. This one has to do with both “eleven” and aguardiente, a rather strong alcoholic beverage.

The legend behind the term

De Jojagal – Trabajo propio, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18600327

Let’s imagine that you’re a worker back in the day and you’d like to eat a snack and have a bit of aguardiente to make your workday go by faster. Well, you’re not exactly going to tell your boss that you’re taking a break to have a swig of alcohol. These workers came across this problem and decided to invent a code. When someone would say once, they were referring to the eleven letters in a-g-u-a-r-d-i-e-n-t-e.


It seems that this may have even also become a tradition in other parts of South America. In a letter to the Spanish King from Antonio de Ulloa and Jorge Juan, these explorers detail an early account of once in Cartagena, Colombia. Here’s what they wrote: 

The use of brandy is so common, that the most regular and sober persons, never omit drinking a glass of it every morning around eleven o’clock…hacer las once, that is to drink a glass of brandy, is the common invitation. (Source)

“Once” in present-day Chile

Over time, this term ended up generally referring to the midday snack that Chileans have in their homes. Many Chileans even eat once as their last meal of the day instead of a typical cena. You’ll also most likely notice that many of the same foods served for breakfast also happen to be once food. Here are some of the typical treats you can expect at a Chilean once: 

  • Marraqueta bread
  • Avocado
  • Jam/Jelly
  • Sausage
  • Cakes (milhojas, etc.)
  • Cheese
  • Pâté
  • Coffee 
  • Tea

I hope that this article has taught you a little about my favorite Chilean meal. Also, shoutout to Chileans for establishing a meal where cake is acceptable every day, you’re fantastic.

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