This morning, we made our way to the statue of Pedro de Valdivia in one corner of the Plaza de Armas to await our FoodyChile Tour of Santigo’s thriving market scene. Alvero, our friendly, easy-going guide, had no problem picking us out, which was no easy trick, given how many gringos were crowding into the plaza. (Or, maybe it was easy, since we were the only ones sitting under the rear end of a massive horse!)
Alvero wasted no time leading us to the nearest mote con huesillo cart. While we’d had a cup on Friday, I was ready to sample another — and today’s batch, from a mustached fellow on one of the pedestrianized streets, was just as good as what we’d tried two days before. (Alvero’s glass was even better, since he asked the vendor to leave out the puffed wheat and dried peaches, giving him a full glass of nothing but nectar! “I can do this,” Alvero explained with a wink, “because I’m Chilean.”)
We sipped on these as we crossed the historic bridge (designed by Monsieur Eiffel, who designed, I’ve heard, some little tower in Paris) into the market district. I marveled at the number of Peruvian vendors on the bridge selling cheviche; the air, in fact, was ripe with the scent of fermented seafood. I asked Alvero if he ever ate “street cheviche,” and he was quick to say “No!” Especially given the red tides in the south (which can make uncooked seafood dangerous), eating raw fish in Santiago is really risky — particularly when it’s been sitting out in stainless steel dishpans in eighty-degree weather all day.
The market unfolds in phases. Up front, there’s a two-story open-air space, constructed to replace the building that collapsed in the earthquake of 2010. It’s bright and spacious, with vendors in orderly stalls. (One, in fact, is operated by a local chef, who sells his wares here for a fraction of what you’ll pay for the same dishes in his swanky joint in the city.) But, as Alvero explained, you pay extra to shop in this kind of environment; the real bargains (and the real Chile!) lie further on.
Next, we found ourselves in the much older, much more authentic marketplace. The narrow aisles were packed with people shopping for every kind of product you can imagine — and some you probably haven’t. Here, stalls loaded with silver fish on ice. There, white refrigerated display cases piled high with cuts of beef. A bit further down, an old woman with a seamed face sells bulk spices. Beside her, a man sells odd metal hooks for lifting up the heating elements in stovetops. Beyond that, racks and racks of calculators, cables, knock-off designer shoes, dog-eared paperbacks, wood carvings, baby clothes, and athletic socks.
As we stood shoulder-to-shoulder with locals stocking their pantries, Alvero introduced us to a number of chiles used in Peruvian cuisines (the Chileans, it seems, are not as fond of chiles as their neighbors). My favorite was a tiny, extremely hot red chile named for a certain body part of a monkey. (The exact body part I will leave to your imagination.) While we didn’t sample it, Alvero did pick up a hot sauce made from pancos, some extremely hot, extremely orange peppers, and carried it with us to our first extended stop: a restaurant in the heart of the market.
This place reminded me of some of my favorite eateries in Thailand: packed with locals and not an English menu in sight. We started with a taste of porotos granados, a Chilean bean stew. (It tastes a lot like hominy.) My favorite, though, was the ajiaco, a meat soup laced with cumin and oregano. Normally, you’d cook it up with leftover meat from your family barbecue … but the version we had today was delicious enough.
We also tucked in to a sample of humitas — little packets of corn husks, wrapped with twine. Inside, we found a soft, sweet serving of grated corn and cheese, spiced in a way that made us both think of my mother’s delicious cornbread dressing.
I enjoyed the other food samples (including the best fried empanadas we’ve had here, stuffed with cheese and seafood), but I also loved the beverages we sampled along the way, including colo de mono … or “the monkey’s tail,” a local beverage that tasted a bit like Bailey’s Irish Creme, if Bailey’s Irish Creme were laced with cloves.
But that was just the beginning! We also sampled local craft beers, a tasty white wine, and the cocktail you can’t leave Santiago without drinking: the pisco sour. Suffice it to say that, as someone that never drinks much (You in the back! No snickering!), all these samples made this one very jolly tour indeed.
And for us — laid back folks, who appreciate good conversation and good humor — Alvero was the perfect guide. We talked politics. We talked about the peculiarities of Chilean Spanish. We talked about the work of Chilean philosopher/director/author/mystic Alejandro Jodorowsky. We talked about the distinctive cuisine of Chile. We talked about what life is like for couples like me and Clyde in Santiago. We even talked about Alvero’s apartment, and his girlfriend, and the fact that the longer he stuck around with us, the more likely he was to avoid having to go home and paint a bedroom in the heat of the day.
If you’re in Santiago, you’d be silly not to join FoodyChile for the market tour — or their combination of a market tour plus a cooking class in a local home! (We didn’t have the time for that one, alas.) And if you’re like us, and enjoy great food even more in the company of people who feel like old friends from the minute you meet them, you’d be even sillier not to ask for Alvero as your guide.