It’s often said that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. The same could also be said of Santiago because if you want to know what makes this city tick, just try the food.
The Chilean people love their tucker and meals are often long, drawn-out affairs with an appealing mix of food, wine and good conversation. They don’t use fancy spices or heavily-flavoured sauces to trick up their food, concentrating mainly on a seafood, meat and potato-based diet. There’s plenty of fresh, home-grown produce available and it is as pleasing on the eye as it is on the palate.
In just one day in Santiago, I sampled both ends of the country’s gastronomic scale, beginning with the local version of fast food, moving on to eat shoulder to shoulder with market workers before ending up in a private house for dinner. And the best news is, anyone can tread in my Pisco Sour-encrusted footsteps.
Colin Bennett runs foodyChile (foodychile.com), a company that takes visitors on tours of the local markets in the centre of town. He’s well empowered to do so, having run a food store for a couple of years that sold produce from around the country. Now he serves up Santiago’s bustling flower, fruit, vegetable and meat markets, with stops along the way so that visitors can sample the goods.
These markets are bustling, cacophonous, enthralling places that the casual tourist simply wouldn’t dare visit on their own for fear of getting lost or overwhelmed. Colin’s tour provides a fascinating snapshot into the life of the market workers and the local people who come here to buy their daily goods. This is as authentic a local experience as you can get...and the food along the way is pretty good, too.
But for me, the undoubted highlight of our foodyChile tour was a visit to La Piojera, a dive bar known locally as the ‘the place of lice.’ It is little more than an old-fashioned drinking den, complete with chipped concrete floor, graffiti on the walls and gaudy orange tables bolted to the floor in case of disturbances. Here, you’ll find a Che Guevara look-alike drinking moodily at a table, an accordion player serenading young lovers and left-wing politicians huddled in a corner. ‘Eclectic’ doesn’t even come close to describing this place which wouldn’t look out of place in a Mexican western.
The piece de resistance is the local drink, the Terre Moto, which means ‘earthquake’. A mix of cheap white wine, pineapple ice-cream and fernet branca, it’s said that if you have two of these deadly concoctions, you can’t remember anything...but I can’t remember if that’s true.
The juxtaposition to the chaos of the markets is a ‘Hidden Kitchen’ dinner with Santiago Puertas Adentro ( santiagopuertasadentro.cl), where you get to dine in a Chilean home. In our case it is with the delightful and worldy Carolina Blanco, who spent 30 years working in pr at the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art in Santiago. Her home is chock full of objet d’art and historical artefacts that look so authentic that one of my fellow guests asks whether the museum might be short an exhibit or two?
With her big round glasses, razor-sharp intelligence and beaming smile, Carolina reminds me of a grey-haired version of Edna Mode from The Incredibles. I ask her to pick the nationality of her favourite house guests and without a second thought she responds: ‘Australians!” Clearly all those years in PR weren’t wasted.
Dinner is served and we tuck into a three-course meal that is tasty, lovingly-prepared, yet simple, comprising salmon, chicken and a local favourite for dessert. The arty surroundings prompt intelligent conversation, the Sav Blanc flows and the evening passes far too soon.
I loved the diversity of the city’s culinary offerings, from man-on-the-street hearty to delicious home cooking. One thing you’ll be guaranteed when you visit Santiago, you won’t go hungry.
Subscription successful! Thank you for subscribing.