Chile is the longest country in the world, and most of this narrow country is coastline. It stands to reason then, that there must be some pretty good seafood, right? Even though Chile’s not famed for its food (except for empanadas), I was still excited to try what was on offer (like everywhere else I’ve been), and one of the first places I headed in Santiago was the Mercado Central.
This felt like a bit of a risk because of my previous experiences of Latin American markets. By the time I was half-way down Peru, I gave up on eating in them as I constantly felt sick. The feeling wouldn’t go away, and after seeing a chemist in Cusco she confirmed I’d caught a parasite. I wasn’t 100% sure that I caught it from a market, but it seemed like a pretty safe bet.
Therefore, for the last 3 months I’ve been avoiding traditional market food, which is a shame because it’s cheap and filling, and great for travellers on a budget. Luckily, Chile is a lot cleaner, and although we mock health and safety back in the UK, it’s a blessing to be in a country that may have some idea of what that is.
And the Mercado Central isn’t a traditional South American market. In fact, it’s one of Santiago’s most popular tourist destinations, thanks to the range of fresh fish that you can buy here or have prepared for you in one of the restaurants. In the ones that aren’t tourist traps, it’s fantastic.
On my first trip, I avoided the restaurants with the shark-like waiters trying to entice me in to their empty restaurants and picked one out the way at the back where there was no-one getting people in because they were too busy serving the many locals that were there of their own accord. It turned out to be a small family restaurant called Pailas Blanca.
Before I’d even opened the menu, I’d had a small Pisco Sour placed in front of me (not bad). After having most of the traditional stuff explained to me, I plumped for paila blanca, which the restaurant was named after, a soup full of what seemed like every shellfish under the sun. Under the surface, there were hundreds of mussels out of their shells, and an entire fish had somehow got in there. On top, precariously balanced were clams and what I thought was an oyster but wasn’t. It was delicious washed down with fresh melon juice.
This was another case of when I discovered how friendly Chileans could be. Hearing that I was foreign, the woman on the next table started chatting to me and when she found out I was an English teacher travelling solo, she invited me to stay at her house in Concepción. I didn’t know where Concepción was an wasn’t planning to visit, but she made me take her phone number anyway, just in case…
The following day, Helena, a friend who I met in the hostel, mentioned that she was heading to the market. Not wanting to miss out on more great food, I joined her. This time, we picked a smaller restaurant that looked almost like a British greasy spoon.
The owner was super helpful in helping us pick a dish and even gave us free seafood soup (although it was more like miso than the one I’d eaten the previous day). We settled on a huge seafood platter to share. As well as the regular stuff like prawns, calamari, and scallops, there were 2 small plates of ceviche, and a seafood you can only get in Chile, piuré. This weird red and slimy blob had to be eaten with lemon and salt, and it had the texture of frogspawn (I’ve not eaten frogspawn, but I don’t need to after the piuré). Although the other stuff on the platter was pretty good, I definitely wouldn’t recommend this.
However, that aside, the food market definitely got a thumbs up. It’s a great place to try some traditional Chilean dishes made from fresh fish. And as long as you manage to avoid tourist traps, you’ll be able to get a really good meal without breaking the bank!