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Most people plan their trips with destinations like museums, historical sites, and cultural events in mind. I always start my planning for where I can find great ingredients, however, and my research on Santiago yielded two avenues. One is the feriá or weekend markets, that are held in neighborhoods all over town. The other suggestion was to start at the Mercado Central. Like the markets in European cities and towns, the mercado in Santiago has a long history of housing small vendors in a large central market with an abundance of fruit, vegetables, fish, meats and breads. One of my favorite markets in the world is in Barcelona, so I was excited for this trip.
Reading about the market beforehand, I found mixed reviews. These ranged from the ecstatic to the downright mean. I was a bit surprised by how hot and cold the comments were on Web sites, with even Santiago natives offering caution about visiting the market.
Unfortunately, I have to offer the same mixed review. On the one hand this market is still vibrant - but only for seafood. There are dozens of stalls both large and small, with a wide variety of South American seafood. Not many cities in the U.S. have this sort of fish market any longer, and it was great to wander the aisles looking at fresh conger, salmon, tuna, scallops, mussels, clams, and on and on. OK, I suppose that I get excited by simple things, but the fishmongers were really engaged and happy to talk about their wares and ask where we were from.
One can easily see why every fish dish that we have had in Chile has been great. With 2,000 miles of coastline that is only an hour away, the quality of the seafood is excellent.
The rest of the market was a disappointment, however. There is one small but very nice produce stand. The few butchers that are in residence at the market carried the same meats that one could easily find in a supermarket anywhere in the world - and the quality wasn't much better, either. In truth, the vast majority of the market is now given over to dozens of restaurants, and the waiters stand in the aisles engaging everyone who passes, entreating them to stop and have lunch. They are pleasant (perhaps overly so) and the first one was charming, but it quickly begins to wear thin after the fourth or fifth waiter confronts you by standing squarely in the middle of the aisle, and one only wants to beat a hasty retreat.
Which we did.
The restaurants hawked by the waiters are aimed at tourists, and I probably would not have eaten at the market, but I was steered to El Galeon by a chef that I know here in Santiago. In cases like this it can be hard to tell whether the food is great just because they rolled out the red carpet for us, but our meal was very good, and looking around the small dining room the high quality appeared to be the same at all the other tables.
I spotted a Sopa Pablo Neruda on the menu. Having read the Nobel Prize winning poet's "Ode to Conger Chowder," I thought that this could be a great test of how seriously a restaurant might take their meals. The poem, like Neruda, is a national treasure and is a lovely ode to not just soup but the ecstasy of life, of beauty and of one's country. This would not be a dish that any self-respecting Chilean chef would want to mess up.
El Galeon came through with a lovely soup. It was chock full of conger, scallops and small Chilean shrimps, in a light fish broth. The onions and potatoes gave the soup body and with just a hint of garlic and a touch of cream, this chowder saved the day and our trip to the market.
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.