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Episode 108: Costumbres - La once in Chile

By Duolingo on Thu 07 Apr 2022

Journalist Kalú Downey and her friend worried that Chilean teatime known as “la once” was fading, so they launched a social media project to celebrate it, only to discover deeper meanings behind the custom.

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Martina: It’s five o’clock in the afternoon in Santiago, Chile, and Kalú Downey is getting ready to have a Chilean-style teatime, called “la once.”

Kalú: En Chile, “la once” es el nombre de la merienda. Se toma en la tarde entre las cinco y las siete. Tiene tres elementos: algo caliente para beber, algo dulce para comer y algo salado también para comer.

Martina: Kalú is with her friend Renata Tesser and the first thing they do is heat up the kettle to prepare tea with milk. Then comes the bread. They cut Chilean rolls called marraquetas and biscuits, called hallullas, and then put them in the toaster. The smell, or olor, is comforting. Finally, they mash up a little bit of avocado to spread on top.

Kalú: La once tiene muchas cosas que la hacen especial. Una de esas cosas es el olor a pan tostado, como las marraquetas y las hallullas. Ese olor, ese aroma les trae a los chilenos recuerdos de cuando eran niños.

Martina: The end result is a colorful table decorated with a cozy spread, two china teacups and tasty snacks. Kalú and Renata have everything ready, except one thing. They get out their phones to take a picture… To post on social media.

Kalú: Hasta hace poco, el ritual de la once era una costumbre que se estaba perdiendo. Entonces, decidimos compartir fotos en nuestro proyecto de Instagram para hacer ver que la once todavía era una parte importante y atractiva de la vida de los chilenos. La once es una forma de relacionarnos con nuestras familias, amigos y hasta con nosotros mismos. No queremos perderla.

Martina: Le damos la bienvenida, welcome to a special season of the Duolingo Spanish Podcast. I’m Martina Castro. This season, we’re exploring customs, or costumbres from the Spanish-speaking world, to help you improve your Spanish listening, and to learn more about daily life in other cultures.

The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I’ll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again. We also offer full transcripts at

Today’s story comes from Chile where we take a look at their custom of teatime. A quick note about our storyteller’s Chilean accent. Oftentimes the S is aspirated. That means you'll hear an "h" sound rather than the typical “s” sound so some words, like “tostado” will sound like “tostado.”

Martina: Like most Chileans, Kalú grew up enjoying la once with her family and friends. During the week and most weekends, they would gather around the table in the afternoon or early evening, roughly between 5:00 and 7:00 pm to drink tea, eat bread, and chat. For Kalú, this teatime was like a fourth meal.

Kalú: Cuando eres niño, la once es parte de tu rutina. Luego, cuando eres más grande y vas a la universidad, la costumbre comienza a perderse un poco. Y normalmente después de los treinta años, la gente regresa a esta tradición. Yo tengo treinta y cuatro y puedo dejar de comer la cena, ¡pero nunca la once!

Martina: At home in northern Chile, avocado toast was a classic for Kalú and her family, long before millennials made it popular in the U.S. Kalú would mix the avocado with salt, oil, and lemon. Families often served la once with scrambled eggs, cheese, or tomatoes. But the custom changed with the seasons. In the summer, as a child, Kalú enjoyed la once with milk and fruit. In the winter, Kalú looked forward to something hot to eat when she got home from school.

Kalú: Yo crecí en un lugar donde los inviernos son muy fríos. Así que, para la once, se hacían muchas cosas en el horno. Por ejemplo, pie de limón, pasteles y diferentes tipos de sándwiches. Junto con la comida, tomábamos leche caliente. Todo era para darnos calor porque llegábamos del colegio con muchísimo frío. Me encantaba llegar a mi casa y ver la once lista sobre la mesa.

Martina: When Kalú was 18, she moved to Santiago to study journalism at the university. After graduating, she landed a job at Paula, a well-known lifestyle magazine at the time in Chile. Kalú began to write about culture and food, both international and local. She started to learn more about la once, its history and how it got its name.

Kalú: La versión más popular dice que la once comenzó durante la época colonial española, cuando había leyes y reglas para limitar las bebidas alcohólicas. La palabra “aguardiente” tiene once letras. Entonces, para preguntarle a otra persona si quería tomar alcohol, se usaba una contraseña, y esa contraseña era “la once”. Luego, poco a poco, las cosas cambiaron. La gente dejó de beber alcohol y comenzó a tomar la merienda con una bebida caliente.

Martina: Kalú also heard a different story — that the British brought over teatime when they immigrated to Chile in the 1800s. Then, supposedly, the custom grew popular in the British-owned mines in Chile’s vast northern desert and spread across the country. Despite these two theories, experts haven’t been able to pin down the definitive origins of la once. Either way, Chile has become one of the world’s largest consumers of tea!

Kalú: Todos en Chile toman la once, sin importar su clase social o estatus económico. Es una tradición muy importante y parte de la identidad chilena.

Martina: While working at the magazine, Kalú got to write about how different aspects of Chilean life were changing. She thought it was a great opportunity to explore her favorite meal time. Of course, most Chileans were familiar with the custom of la once. But it had rarely gotten any media attention. Kalú wondered if la once was still as popular as it was when she was a kid.

Kalú: Mi idea era concentrarme en la mesa, en la tradición gastronómica de la once, en las distintas preparaciones y en las personas detrás de esta comida.

Martina: Through work, Kalú met a new friend, Renata, she was just as passionate about la once and Chilean customs as she was.

Kalú: Nos conocimos en enero de 2014 a través del trabajo. Ella es diseñadora gráfica. Teníamos varias cosas en común: nacimos el mismo año, con pocos días de diferencia, en el norte de Chile, donde la tradición de la once es diferente al resto del país.

Martina: But as they hung out and brainstormed creative projects together — often over tea and avocado toast — Kalú and Renata worried about la once. They felt the teatime of their childhoods wasn’t very present in their peers’ lives.

Kalú: La once tiene un ciclo. Cuando somos niños, es como una obligación. Cuando somos adolescentes o más grandes, la costumbre se pierde un poco. Cuando eres adulto con hijos, tienes que prepararles la once a ellos. Pero ahora, con el ritmo de la vida moderna, ese ciclo se está rompiendo. Parece que las personas de nuestra generación ya no tienen tiempo para hacerles la once a sus hijos.

Martina: Kalú and Renata both had family and friends who didn’t have time to enjoy la once, because of their hectic schedules. To find out for sure what was going on, Kalú and her friend published an article on a popular website, about why they thought la once was disappearing from people’s lives. They hoped peoples’ reactions to the article would provide some new insights!

Kalú: Nuestra teoría era que la once se estaba perdiendo más y más como consecuencia del estilo de vida moderno. Las personas trabajan hasta tarde y no tienen tiempo para preparar la once. Pero las cosas que aprendimos después de escribir el artículo nos sorprendieron mucho.

Martina: When Kalú and her friend published their theory that la once was disappearing in Chile, the response from readers was…passionate, to say the least. Many readers not only rejected the idea, they were offended to even consider it. They cherished their teatime!

Kalú: Descubrimos que la once todavía es muy importante para los chilenos. Renata y yo nos sentimos mejor y fue interesante ver la reacción de todas las personas.

Martina: The strong responses from readers inspired Kalú and Renata to take a different approach. They would celebrate la once in modern Chile. So in 2017, they launched a social media initiative on Instagram called “Proyecto Once,” or “Project Teatime.” They wanted to document this national “fourth meal” and see how people practiced the custom in their lives. They started with snapshots of their own teatimes and invited others to send in their “once selfies.”

Kalú: La gente tenía que saber de nosotras, eso era lo primero, así que hicimos una once y le tomamos fotos. También les pedimos a nuestras familias y amigos que hicieran lo mismo. Al principio no sabíamos si nos iban a enviar sus fotos o si el proyecto iba a funcionar. La once es algo muy íntimo y no sabíamos si las personas iban a querer compartir las imágenes de estos momentos.

Martina: Even though they weren’t sure if it would catch on, Kalú and Renata set an ambitious goal for the project.

Kalú: La primera parte del proyecto era publicar cien fotos en cien días; una foto por día. Era mucho trabajo, así que Renata y yo nos dividimos los meses. Yo hice enero, Renata hizo febrero y así continuamos.

Martina: Soon the two friends saw the same passionate responses about la once on Instagram. Chileans who were going to see their parents for teatime sent snapshots. New immigrants to Chile shared photos, showing how they were learning the local culture with their first “once.” They got photos from all over the country.

Kalú: Recibimos una foto de Isla de Pascua. Era una once con un sándwich de un metro de largo. ¡Era gigante! Renata y yo estábamos sorprendidas porque recibimos fotos muy diferentes. ¡Fue súper lindo!

Martina: The project got a boost when a Chilean social media influencer joined in. She shared how her mom always invited her and her sisters over for tea. For her, that was a precious memory. And it helped Kalú and Renata reach their first goal.

Kalú: Gracias a esto el proyecto se hizo más popular y completamos la primera parte sin problemas. Publicamos cien fotos en cien días.

Martina: Among those first 100 photos, they saw many different kinds of teatimes. Some with the classic avocado toast, others with hot dogs topped with french fries, and even teatimes with indigenous foods like seasoned nuts, and a fried pastry called “sopaipilla mapuche.” While the photos were fun to look at, Kalú and Renata enjoyed reading the comments, where people shared why taking a break, or una pausa, with la once was so important to them.

Kalú: Nos dijeron que la once era como una pausa, una pausa del trabajo y de las actividades del día. Durante la once, los chilenos se sientan y el tiempo se para. La once es un momento para compartir y crear relaciones con la gente. Por ejemplo, cuando invitas a alguien a tomar la once en tu casa, es un momento especial y único con esa persona.

Martina: Kalú realized that la once, was a chance for friends and families to talk about anything and everything in between…from sensitive topics to household chores. And as the two friends learned new aspects about their favorite custom, the project got more attention.

Kalú: Comenzamos a recibir llamadas de los medios de comunicación, como los diarios, la radio y la televisión. ¡Renata y yo nos sentíamos como las representantes de la once!

Martina: The two friends took their passion for la once to the media. They won a scholarship for creative entrepreneurs to develop “Project Teatime” even more. And they landed a partnership with the magazine where Kalú used to work.

Kalú: La idea de la revista era escribir artículos sobre la once. El objetivo era estudiar la sociedad chilena a través de la once en vez de solamente escribir sobre las comidas de esta tradición. Renata y yo aceptamos.

Martina: The series of articles helped spread the project beyond Chile, to international media. And it showed many people, both in Chile and around the world, just how diverse la once can be.

Kalú: Observamos que la once del norte de Chile es diferente a la once del sur y a la once que se toma en la costa, donde, por ejemplo, comen pescado. La once también es diferente si vives en una zona donde se comen muchas cosas dulces.

Martina: In 2020, the global pandemic put an end to their magazine articles about la once. But Kalú and her friend kept their social media project going. During lockdown, families in quarantine sent in photos. And it seemed like the project was helping people get through the difficult time.

Kalú: La gente estaba muy deprimida y eso tuvo consecuencias negativas en tradiciones como la once. Sin embargo, el Proyecto Once creó un sentido de comunidad. Los chilenos veían las fotos y se sentían parte de algo. El ritual de la once los ayudaba a mantenerse mentalmente sanos.

Martina: Kalú and Renata also saw lots of photos of people baking bread — not just in Chile, but around the world. They thought it was funny to see such a global bread-making boom, because toast was such an essential part of la once.

Kalú: ¡Hacer pan en casa se puso de moda! Y la gente se tomaba fotos con sus panes tostados con huevos revueltos o aguacate. ¡En Chile hacer pan es algo muy común, así que no era nada nuevo para nosotros!

Martina: When the pandemic restrictions were lifted, many families who had been separated during quarantine could finally get together again. Suddenly, the selfies from teatime had a more celebratory vibe!

Kalú: ¡La gente estaba muy feliz y vimos muchas fotos de personas tomando once! Después de tiempos tan difíciles, la once era un momento para celebrar con la familia y amigos.

Martina: One thing was clear: la once had not disappeared in Chile like Kalú had once thought. Instead, her project confirmed that the custom was deeply rooted in Chilean culture. And it revealed how different families made it their own.

Kalú: Es un momento donde las familias y los amigos pueden reunirse y pasar tiempo juntos. El olor del pan tostado trae muchos recuerdos y es sinónimo de comunidad.

Martina: Today Kalú and her friend Renata have published over 1,000 posts for “Proyecto Once.” Though, recently they’ve stopped uploading as often. That’s because they’re taking their online campaign to print. They are publishing a coffee table book all about la once. It will have photos of teatimes from families across Chile. Kalú and Renata want to keep sharing the beauty and diversity they’ve found through this beloved custom.

Kalú: La once también es muy importante porque es simple. No se necesita mucho dinero para hacer una. Creo que es una tradición hermosa, única y accesible. La once es nuestra, ¡es de todos los chilenos!

Martina: Kalú Downey is a journalist in Santiago de Chile. She created “Project Teatime,” or “Proyecto Once,” together with her friend and graphic designer, Renata Tesser. You can follow them at proyecto.once on Instagram.

This story was produced by “Ado” or Antonio Díaz Oliva, a Chilean writer and translator based in Chicago.

We would love to know what you thought of this episode! What was the most surprising thing you learned about Chilean culture? You can write us an email at and call and leave us a voicemail or audio message on WhatsApp, at +1-703-953-93-69. Don’t forget to say your name and where you’re from!

Martina: Here’s a message we recently got from Betsy in Connecticut about a different story from Chile:

Betsy: I just listened to the podcast ‘The Rodin Thief’. I have a portrait of Rodin's work La Main de Dieu on my desk and now the story of the Torso of Adele and this photo inspire me the way Emil and Cristobal were inspired. I think the Duolingo method makes studies relate to real life issues. It's truly a work of educational art. Thanks so much. ¡Hasta la vista!

Martina: Thank you so much for your message, Betsy! It’s so great to hear how that episode inspired you!

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The Duolingo Spanish podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I’m the executive producer, Martina Castro. ¡Gracias por escuchar!


This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Producer: Antonio Diaz Oliva
Narrator & Protagonist: Kalú Downey
Editor: Laura Isensee
Managing Editor: David Alandete
Mixed by: Andy Fechtenholz
Production Manager: Román Frontini
Assistant Producer: Andy Fechtenholz
Sound Design & Mastering Engineer: Antonio Romero
Executive Producer/Host: Martina Castro