Chile is the world’s longest and narrowest country with it’s borders defined by the Andes Mountain and Pacific Ocean. The coast line runs from the tropics to the wintery southern tip which means there is a staggering amount of seafood. Not just fish, but a huge variety of Chilean seafood. Fishing is a major industry in Chile and it is one of the major exporters of fish and seafood in the world. The Chilean sea is considered among the most productive marine ecosystems in the world.
Trying the traditional Chilean seafood dishes was high on our list for our visit to Chile. We were eager to take a break from all the beef we had been eating in Argentina and Uruguay. Even though most of the unique Chilean seafood and fish is available fresh along the coast, it can also be found in the capital where we are based for about 2 weeks. For the best Chilean seafood in Santiago, we made our way to the Mercado Central, mecca for fresh, local Chilean seafood.
Mercado Central, Santiago
The Mercado Central is one of those places that must be on your must-visit list in Santiago. It is a place to eat as well as pick up fresh fish. It is strangely enough frequented by both locals and tourists. Locals go early, get their fresh fish and prepare their meals at home, while tourists walk around leisurely taking pictures and admiring the fresh fish. There are several fish stands that surround the outer edges of the market and you smell the fish way before you see it. I guess that’s expected of any fish market 🙂
We made our way through the market looking for somewhere to taste traditional Chile seafood specialities. The center of the market is the true tourist trap. Here waiters call out to you and tempt you to their restaurants, each competing for your business while offering “special deals.” The less touristy restaurants that are filled with locals are in the periphery of the market.
Before we decided on where to eat, we walked around the market looking for restaurants that meet 3 main criteria. Restaurants that are clean, filled with locals and offer a “short menu” (meaning, offer just a few local specialties). With this criteria in mind, we ended up at YiYi Restaurant at the far end of the market.
Given that fish is a speciality in Chile, there were several specialities that were offered at YiYi’s. We decided to order two that were recommended to us as popular Chilean seafood specialities to try. We chose the Locos Papas Mayo (abalone) and Pastel de Jaiba (crab cake). We will be highlighting additional local Chilean seafood specialities in the coming posts.
Locos or Chilean Abalone Seafood
So, what are Locos you might be wondering. Locos or Chilean Abalone are a species of large edible sea snails. They are properly known as concholepas concholepas, and they are native to the coasts of Chile and Southern Peru. These sea snails are “univalve” which means that they have just a protective shell on one side of their body while the other side attaches to any rocky surface feeding off of algae. When it lays flat, the muscle spreads out. But, once it’s removed, the muscle contracts to protect the “meaty” inside.
The name “locos” in Chilean Spanish comes from the native Mapuche language and it means “crazy”. Nothing to do with the Chilean seafood at all!
The most common way to find locos prepared in Chile is in the dish known as Locos con Mayo. As the name implies, locos are prepared with mayonnaise. The dish I ordered also came with papas or potatoes.
When I first looked at the plate, I was surprised to see so much mayo on the locos. We typically do not use mayonnaise at all and was concerned that it was there to mask the taste. Fortunately, the lettuce, tomatoes and potatoes looked fresh, so if I didn’t like the locos at least I had something to eat 🙂
The texture of the locos was crunchy and firm. It was hard to cut and needed a steak knife. Once I bit into it, I found it having a mild flavor similar to a calamari steak and maybe even scallops. When preparing locos, they must be tenderized first, which involves pounding them first against a hard surface to soften the muscle. We learned from our waitress that this pounding of the locos has something to do with the name. The dish was served warm, at room temperature and the combination of tastes and textures was perfect.
To be honest, even though the locos looked a little strange, what they lack in looks, they make up in taste. After one bite you understand why they are a “delicacy”.
7,500 CLP (Chilean Pesos) Approx $10.55 USD.
Locos are strictly controlled in Chile and are only available in certain times of the year. Chile banned the fishing of locos in 1989, after the population had dropped dramatically. Today, the only legal way for Chilean fishermen to catch locos is to have a permit. This makes them sustainable, however illegal fishing is common. Summertime, which is December through April is the best time to eat fresh locos.
This Chilean seafood dish was surprising in many ways. First the look. The pastel de jaiba came in a dish, similar to a soup bowl. It was a white, thick liquid, dotted with pieces of red crab. A very different presentation as we were expecting something close to baked crab cakes.
The dish was served hot and with a soup spoon. “Wow” were the first words that came out of Claire’s mouth when she took her first bite. She found it rich, creamy and flavorful. We asked the waitress how the dish was prepared and she told us it had four simple ingredients: cheese, milk, bread and crab. Knowing this helped us decipher the flavors, which was crab although masked with cheese. Overall, Claire enjoyed the dish, but found it a little too heavy.
4,500 CLP (Chilean Pesos) Approx $6.33 USD
We have been surprised at the variety of Chilean seafood and unique fish available. The Mercado Central is a great place to see the diversity. In addition to the locos and pastel de jaiba that we experienced, there are many others. Other traditional Chilean seafood include erizos (large sea urchins), caldillo de congrio (a soup of conger eel, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, herbs and spices), cochayuyo (seaweed), machas (razor clams) and sopa de mariscos (seafood soup).
There is a lot to discover and experience and we will continue to highlight other traditional Chilean seafood dishes. More than likely we will not taste everything, but we will showcase other specialities especially as we travel to Valparaiso which is along the coast of Chile.
For now, please tell us what Chilean seafood specialities would you like us to experience and highlight. Please leave your comments below.
Mercado Central, San Pablo 967, Santiago, Chile.
YiYi Restaurant and Marisqueria, Mercado Central, Local 93- 94, Santiago, Chile.
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Rosemary is a writer and culinary explorer. Together with her partner, Claire, they created Authentic Food Quest to inspire people to travel deeper through authentic food. Through food, they believe, people can have more meaningful connections on their travels. Prior to creating Authentic Food Quest, Rosemary worked as a director of strategy in advertising for over 15 years. Take the quiz and find out your Food Traveler Profile.