Culture Nerd #2: What are Chilean ‘Onces’

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In Chile, you have Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks. But there’s also Onces.

What are Onces?

Onces is a meal, or a snack, or something-in-between that consists usually of bread and cheese and ham, tea or coffee, jam and maybe something sweet like cakes. It is kind of an afternoon tea, but more savoury, and mostly featuring Chilean breads – of which there are many varieties that they are very proud of. Marraqueta is the most common (and delicious), and quite like a traditional bread roll that you would get in the UK (lets not get into the bread roll discussion now guys). In summer, Onces come with fresh tomatoes, palta (avocado) and sometimes plain scrambled eggs. Sweet treats and manjar (dulce de leche) became more common as it got colder here.

Maraqueta, Tacita, Ham and Cheese, Traditional Chilean Tea

The Most Simple of the Chilean Onces – Maraqueta, Ham, Chease, Tacitas, and Tea

Onces are taken in the evening or late afternoon, with family or visitors, for example, on Sunday afternoons. Lunch is definitely Chile’s large meal of choice, and so a quick snack in the evening to top you up, rather than a full dinner, makes a lot of sense.

Where does ‘Once’ come from?

At face value, for foreigners, Onces seem to have been derived from a combination of the British Elevenses and tea-time traditions. Elevenses is the literal translation of Onces, and the make-up of savoury sandwiches and tea fits with the idea of the British morning snack, while the timing, and occasional sweets working with the afternoon tea tradition. Though the Spanish were the main colonisers of the area, there consistently was a British presence in Chile, expecially along the coastal shipping routes. Perhaps the word was borrowed, to describe the afternoon meal that was already part of Chile’s lunch and siesta culture. People cite that the British “take tea” and the Chilean’s “tomar onces.” Meals in Chile have become verbs, so instead of “comiste almuerzo?” (Did you eat lunch?) the standard expression is “almuerzaste?” (Have you lunched?)


Another explanation, is that Chilean workers, especially in mines and farms under colonialist rule, rose to work at 6am, and didn’t get a break until 5pm, where they would be able to have a small dinner. So, they would get a break after eleven hours of work, and named the meal for the Eleventh hour. This also works with the verb “to take” as in – to take a break. I found this explanation on Etimologias, and can’t seem to find a corroboration, (though all of these explanations are honestly without any in-depth etymological research).

The online favourite explanation – the most salacious, and the least colonial – is that it comes from Miners sneaking off to take a swig of Augadiente (a local aniseed-flavoured kind of moonshine). Some say that Onces derives from a code relating to the 11 letters of the alcohol, which the miners would call their break, for a little snack and a swig. If the use of the number of letters of the specific booze as a code seems far-fetched, Gringa Journey’s cites The Riddle of Latin America, with a source from 1758 describing the Colombians originally been given a work break at 11am for a little swig of liquor, and thereafter using “tomar onces” to refer to drinking in general (source complete with judgemental tone).

Though the boozing etymology seems a little disconnected from the Onces seen today, combining these three ideas together brings us to a quite convincing history. The use of the name Onces for taking lunch (alcohol) breaks, which often came very late in the day due to early starts, Colonial cultures reinforcing the type of evening meal, as well as the general pervasiveness of mining culture throughout Chile, could be the reason the word has stuck around today.

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