It’s Spring in Santiago. The Andes are still covered with snow and people walk around in coats and boots, even though it feels more like the Mediterranean than the gateway to Antarctica. It’s Chile – the Other Down-Under on the other side of the earth. And I have just arrived.
After five fabulous years living in Singapore and exploring Southeast Asia, we repatriated to the US for two years before admitting that, well, we didn’t want to repatriate. It was time to leave again; time to find another place, different from Singapore, but equally interesting and enriching. So here we are – Chile. “It’s the Singapore of South America,” we were told, and the capital city of Santiago gives proof to this reputation. Skyscrapers, including the tallest on the continent, gleam like silver redwoods in the foreground of the snowcapped Andes cordillera, giving it the nickname “Sanhattan.” Here the roadways are well maintained, the water is drinkable from any tap and prices are clearly marked. It’s a city steeped in history and architecture amid cutting edge technology, style and, of course, great food.
“But if you really want to see Chile, you have to get out of Santiago,” a new friend told me. Where Santiago is sleek, bustling and pulsing with the lifeblood of the economy, just an hour or so out of town reveals a quieter side of Chile. Smaller places with open-air markets, dogs sleeping beneath cars and people of little pretension cooking food outdoors. So I met my friend in one of these places – the town of Quilpue – to explore the Winter food scene. An old man pointed to an uncomfortably narrow spot to squeeze my car into and promised to watch it. And we were off!
Walking through the market at Quilpue, rows of crowded booths sold everything from clothes to old tools and housewares and repackaged paper products. But the market is best known for its produce, drawing from the world-renowned breadbasket that is Chile. Rows of fruits, vegetables, nuts and homemade concoctions crowded the walkways in a kaleidoscope of color. Avocados glowed green among striated red apples, dried orange peaches and a vast assortment of herbs, pumpkins, melons and peppers. The selections seemed endless, each stall offering something better or bigger than the one before it.
And there was food, lots of food. Young men stood by charcoal grills sizzling with anticucho – cubes of skewered, marinated pork and beef heart; women sold juices squeezed by hand to order; an old lady baked hot empanadas filled with stewed beef, onions, cheese and black olives in the back of her van.
A butcher sliced off a slab of arrollado huaso – a head cheese-like roll of meat scraps and spices tied in pork skin and boiled tender. The meaty flavors and spices exploded in my mouth, making me wish for a smear of blazing red pebre (Chile’s go-to hot chili paste) on a soft disc of the ubiquitous pan amasado, flat bread made with flour and lard and baked in a brick oven. I ate my way through the market, each vendor happily pushing food on me and smiling “¡Disfruta!” (Enjoy!), promising: “Just wait until summer when the food’s really good!”
I came upon the seafood area – unadorned stalls laden with local bounty from the coast just 40 minutes away. Hunks of swordfish, tuna, sea bass, kingfish and huge ocean sunfish speckled silver and red.
Stacks of razor clams sat beside piles of thick, round abalone, oysters and scallops. Nearby, half an oil drum set atop an old shopping cart served as a grill, with a chunk of fish sizzling beside mussels the size of my hand, opening with puffs of briny steam. The fishmonger insisted I tear off a piece of fish and slurp down a mussel on the half.
And so my food adventures in Chile begin. There’s just one little catch: Spanish. Not a problem, I thought, I’ve been mumbling my way around Latin America for years. But it seems the tourist zone of the Riviera Maya is different from the real world of Chile – infamous for its rapid-fire speech, cut-off words and Chilenismos – an unintelligible slang. But even though I may speak Spanish like a five-year-old today, every week I’ll get a year older. And better able to discover the wonder of the Other Down-Under.