Santiago central market was, as they say in the UK, a game of two halves. We had planned to check out the market in the early afternoon so that we could wander the fresh fish and vegetable sections for a while and then eat lunch among the stalls. I had visions of little food vendors perched among the stalls, perhaps one specialising in empanadas, another in fish dishes, and so on. Anthony Bourdain had visited this market and he seemed to like it, so I was pretty optimistic about the kind of unpretentious food I’d find there. This fantasy was sadly not sustained by the reality.
The restaurant section of the market immediately felt like the worst kind of tourist trap, in which dozens of red-uniformed restaurant operatives descended on us and started in on a hard sell in both Spanish and English. We resisted for a while but eventually decided we may as well pick a place for lunch. As we foolishly hesitated among identical looking options, one operative told us we should come to his restaurant because Obama just ate there on his recent visit to Chile. Naked appeal to tourists he took to be North American? Definitely. True? Maybe, maybe not. But we laughed and figured it was as good a line as we were going to get at that point. The experience was what you might predict in these circumstances: decent, fresh seafood, hideously overpriced, with service so attentive as to feel unpleasantly like surveillance. I ordered large shrimp fried in garlic and got all of three shrimp for my £10. Three! Lucky I wasn’t too hungry. The waiter seemed annoyed that we didn’t order more but the whole thing was uncomfortable enough that we didn’t really care.
So, eating at the Santiago market is not recommended but the market itself was a whole other story. As the smiling woman in the picture above suggests, meandering among the fish stalls was a joy. Everything is laid out beautifully and you can get sucked into watching the workers expertly gut and fillet fish with amazing speed. Everyone who works in the market section is friendly; eager to sell you some fish, to be sure, but just as happy to chat about the produce or, like this guy, to pose for a few photos.
It’s also rather nice to see all the foods we’ve been eating for the last week or so in their raw form.
The stallholder in charge of these scallops tapped them repeatedly to show us they were alive and healthy. Not alive but still pretty fresh were the congrios of various colours along with lots of other fishes I didn’t recognise.
And finally comes the freakiest of seafoods: picorocos or giant edible barnacles. These creatures exert a queasy fascination, what with their giant claws (or are they – shudder – teeth?) peering out of their rocky shells and, worse, some kind of yellow tongue that emerges from between the pincers if they smell your proximity. They look a lot like the Alien, especially when the pincers open up and the tongue thing comes out. As you watch, they wave about, sniffing the air for prey.
They’re completely abject and I could have stared at them for hours. Apparently they are cooked in the shell/rock and you eat them by grabbing the claws/teeth and using them to pull the whole thing out. All I have to say is that I’m willing to bet you any money that Obama didn’t eat those when he was here.