Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Loco over locos, Chilean “abalone”

Locos, Chilean “abalone” (Concholepas concholepas),[1] are among Chile’s, and my wife’s, favorite shellfish.  And of course the name, from the Mapuche language, makes for some interesting translations since “loco” is Spanish for “crazy:”  “crazies with mayonnaise,” etc., frequently adorn the English versions of Chilean menus.  

While similar in appearance, taste and texture to abalone – which exist in Chile only as an introduced aquaculture species – locos are smaller and are carnivorous, feeding mainly on mussels.  They inhabit rocky coastal shallows down to about 40 m. along the coast of South America from northern Peru to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego.  They grow slowly, taking 4 to 5 years to reach the minimum harvestable size of 10 cm. (about 4 inches) in diameter and, based on evidence from archaeological sites, have been part of Chilean diet for over 8,500 years.[2]  And they were abundant; one 6,000 year old shell midden near Los Vilos contained an estimated 4,185,000 shells. [3]

Upon their arrival, the Spanish also developed a taste for locos.  The earliest mention seems to be from Padre Diego Rosales, in his General History of the Kingdom of Chile (1640):

The Chileans call the donkey foot* loco.  It seems a vulgar food, but if it is macerated by pounding it looses its hardness and is tasty.[4]

*pie de burro – name for loco in Peru

Pedro Gonzales de Agueros (1768-1793) mentions them in 1791, saying:

The locos resemble donkey’s foot or hoof and are so tough that to stew them it is necessary to beat them first with sticks or stones and in this manner tenderize them and afterwards they come out very tasty.[5]



 Photo: Luis Muñoz
 Photo: Paul Monfils

 Writing a few years later, Jesuit naturalist, Juan Ignacio Molina (1740-1829) gives then a scientific name (which was later changed to Concholepas concholepas) and describes them as follows:

The Loco, Murex loco - oval, with a very short tail, knobby above, toothless opening, almost round.  This muricid [sea snail] is held in high esteem for the taste of its flesh, which is white, but a little bitter, however cooks have found ways to make it perfectly tender, by beating it with a stick before cooking. It is three to four inches thick and contains two or three drops of a royal purple liquor within a little bladder near the neck.[6]

Molina’s observation that locos contain a few drops of “royal purple liquor,” is a testament to his observation.  No other Colonial source seems to notice, although the Inca used locos or a related rock snail (Thais chocolate) to produce dyes similar to the Royal Purple from Mediterranean sea snails.[7]

The locos fishery

Unsurprisingly, after the accounts of the early natural historians, locos disappeared from history, if not from the tables of Chileans.  We know that they remained abundant through the end of the 19th century when they could be purchased on the beach for 60 centavos per hundred, or about 4 times that much in Santiago.[8]  (For comparison beef and lamb sold for from 70 to 90 centavos a kilo.)  And there is sporadic data from the early 20th century: in 1926, 67 metric tons of locos were landed; during the 1940s loco landings were between 1,000 and 2,000 tons per year; and by the 1950s, when data becomes regularly available, landings averaged around 4,000 tons per year and remained at this level until 1975.

During this period they were harvested mainly by ‘hookah” divers operating from open wooden boats with outboard motors. 

The fishing lasted one day, depending on weather conditions, in the sub-tidal areas, seldom exceeding the 5-mile offshore limit. There were three crew members: the patron or boatman, an auxiliary and the diver. The auxiliary, called a “telegrapher”, takes care of the air compressor, the life rope and the hoses. The air compressor has one air exit for the diver. He lifts and sinks the bag, helped by the patron. The diver harvests Locos using a rubber suit. Diving is between 2 to 6 hours each trip, and although the result varies, between 200 and 400 Locos are taken in one day. The diver pulls out Locos one by one with a kind of short pike (chope), and gathers between 40 and 100 Locos in his waist bag. When the bag is full, he gives a signal to the “telegrapher” by drawing the rope. The "telegrapher" lifts the bag and sends a replacement to the diver.[9]

Hookah dive boats. Chiloé, 2010         Photo: Germán Henriquez

In 1976, with encouragement from the military dictatorship’s unregulated free market ideology, exportation of frozen locos to Japan began.  That first shipment of 48 tons of “Chilean abalone” sold for $1.38 US a kilo.  The following year exports increased to 2,368 tons at around $2.50 a kilo and generated $6 million, and by 1980 the total catch had grown to 24,856 tons; about 6 times the total annual production 10 years earlier—and very little of it was being eaten by Chileans.  The catch began to drop off after 1980, but increased price brought the year’s income for exported locos to about $26 million in 1982.  And by 1987, as the supply decreased, the price for frozen export quality locos increased to $10 US a kg. so that slightly under 4,000 tons brought Chile an income of $42.6 million.

As you can imagine, the increasing demand and price for locos brought chaos to the coast and overexploitation to the fishery. Registered locos fishermen increased from 17,000 in 1975 to 57,000 in 2005. And they migrated to new areas creating conflicts with local fishermen, called ”locos fever” or “the locos wars” by the newspapers:  “National media covered the frenzy, propagating the image of rowdy and drunken migrant fishermen fighting and also cavorting with prostitutes on the beaches.”[10]

 It even inspired a movie, La Fiebre del Loco:


The film is about infighting between visiting prostitutes and their husbands' wives in a small fishing village in rural Southern Chile that has become greedy and crazy for Abalone. The film's tagline was "Amor y avaricia en un mundo de buzos y moluscos" (Spanish for: Love and greed in a world of scuba and mollusks). 

This chaos and the dramatic fall in the catch led to steps to control the fishery, often ineptly organized and plagued by illegal fishing.  First were seasonal closures, from 1981 to 1984, followed by national quotas and closure of all but the southern areas from 1985 to 1989, and then by a total closure of the fishery from 1990 to 1992.  Starting in 1993 a system of management areas was established in which only registered fishermen from a particular caleta or cove could collect locos in their area and no locos could be taken from outside of the management areas; a system designed to give fishermen ownership of the fishery and incentives to promote sustainability.  That system has now been applied, the harvest has returned to levels similar to those of the early 1970, which are presumably sustainable -- in spite of an ethos among fishermen applauding illegal fishing by locals.

Eating locos

Locos are widely available in Chile today.  They are on the menu of many up-scale restaurants, and fresh locos in the shell and frozen cleaned locos sell for around 1000 to 1,200 pesos each ($2.15 – 2.65) while fresh cleaned locos sell for around 20,000 pesos a dozen in Santiago ($43). Prices are lower at fish markets and still lower on the coast. 

If you wish to become a “locovore” and prepare fresh locos from scratch, this is what  the New Kitchen Manual of 1882 suggests:

Put them in a thick bag and beat them [se apalea] forcefully until they are good and soft, but without breaking them; wash them in warm water and then put them in more warm water and bring them to boil over a strong flame; when they are cooked take a little of their soup to melt flour and make a thick gravy [una mazamorra] and season it with a little color [chili or paprika cooked in grease].[11]

By the 20th century, the advice was more detailed and relied on chemistry as well as force.  In a chapter called “useful advice and little secrets…” in her 1935 cookbook The Good Table, Olga Budge de Edwars recommends three ways to tenderize locos:

First: With ashes.  Leave them for an hour covered with ashes and then beat each one separately covered with ashes with a thin stick.

Second:  With flour and baking soda.  ½ kilo of flour, 2 tablespoons of baking soda. [and proceed as above?].

Third: With coarse kitchen salt.  ½ kilo of salt.

In truth, the secret is in killing them, which is almost imperceptible by simple looking, and to accomplish this objective, the best system is to put them in a sack or canvas and beat them against something hard. No loco can resist the combination of coarse salt with a bit of baking soda and flour.[12]

Frozen locos

If all this seems to require bit more effort than you want to expend, you can use frozen locos (which seem to be pre-pounded and require only cleaning and cooking according to this video recipe for Korean abalone porridge).

Or use canned locos,  

Chile's Seafood treasure!
All Natural
            $31.70   L-SE-05

  • Three or four whole abalone per tin
  • Gourmet quality
  • Harvested from the pure coastal waters off Chile
  • Size - 13.4 ounces
From the cool, fresh waters off the coast of southern Chile come these delicious 'Locos', also known as Chilean Abalone. They share the rich flavor and signature texture of their northern cousin, the Pacific Abalone.
The pure southern Pacific Ocean ensures a fresh clean flavor to these shellfish. They have a full flavor and a firm bite that make them perfect chopped in an onion and tomato salad, or sautéed and added to pasta or a cream sauce.
Or simply heat them slowly in warm water, then serve them with melted butter for an unusual delicacy sure to please all who try it.


After pounding fresh locos are boiled or cooked in a pressure cooker until tender.  Sources differ on how long this takes, from 15 minutes (plus cool down time) to 45 minutes in a pressure cooker or from 45 minutes to 2 hours boiling in an open pan.  All suggest you save the broth.

The most popular preparation seems to be: 

Locos con mayo /  Locos with mayonnaise.

Cool the locos to room temperature and serve with a mixed salad, mayo and Chilean salsa verde (parsley, minced onion and lemon juice); two for a first course, 4 to 6 for a main course.

Another popular dish is:

Chupe de locos / Stewed locos
Photo: Nestle.cl
6 large locos, cooked and cut into rounds
1 tablespoon tomato sauce
1 minced onion
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
½ tablespoon paprika (ají de color)
1/2 cup of the locos cooking liquid
1/2 cup fresh crumbs from French style bread (marraqueta)
1/2 cup milk
2 hard boiled eggs cut in to rounds
1/2 cup grated cheese (queso mantecoso or Munster)

Soak the bread crumbs in the milk for 10 minutes, then squeeze to remove the excess milk. Sauté the onion and paprika in the oil, then add the tomato sauce, the bread crumbs and the locos broth.  Put the locos and eggs in an oven proof dish, cover with abundant grated cheese and bake for 30 minutes.

And finally, for the ultimate in empanadas:

Empanadas de locos -- Cocinarte Chile

Cook the locos until very tender, cut into small pieces, soften the onion in a little oil cooked with paprika (color), add the locos, salt, chili, hard boiled egg and a little of the broth the locos were cooked in. Form small empanadas and fry.

Locos are good for you too:  100 grams provide 120 calories, 21 grams of protein and only .5 grams of fat. (Tabla de composición química de alimentos chilenos)  I found no data on their cholesterol content, but similar species like abalone and conch have 70 - 90 mg/100 gm., about 30 - 40% of the cholesterol in one large egg.

[1] Also called  pata de burro (donkey foot) and chanque in Peruvian Spanish.  Wikipedia: Concholepas concholepas
[2] Jerardino, Antonieta,  Juan C. Castilla, José Miguel Ramírez and Nuriluz Hermosilla. 1992 Early Coastal Subsistence Patterns in Central Chile: A Systematic Study of the Marine-Invertebrate Fauna from the Site of Curaumilla-1 Latin American Antiquity, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Mar., 1992), pp. 43-62 
[3] Couyoumdjian, Juan Ricardo. 2009 El mar y el paladar. el consumo de pescados y mariscos en chile desde la independencia hasta 1930 Historia, Vol. 42, Núm. 1, enero-junio, pp. 57-107
[4] As quoted in Reyes E. 1986. ¿Que paso con el loco?. Crónica de un colapso anunciado. Revista Chile Pesquero, N 36 Junio, pp. 143–145.
[5] Gonzalez de Agueros, Pedro. 1791. Descripción historial de la provincia y archipiélago de Chiloé, en el Reyno de Chile y Obispado de la Concepción. Dedicada a nuestro católico monarca Don Carlos IV (que Dios guarde).  Madrid: Impr. de Don Benito Cano. On line at http://www.memoriachilena.cl/temas/documento_detalle.asp?id=MC0008627
[6] Molina, Juan Ignacio. 1967. Ensayo sobre la historia natural de Chile : Bolonia 1810 Santiago : Eds. Maule. pp. 212. On line at http://www.memoriachilena.cl/temas/documento_detalle.asp?id=MC0002868
[7] Michel, Rudolph H. 1992. Indigoid Dyes in Peruvian and Coptic Textiles of The University Museum of. Archaeology and Anthropology.  Archeomaterials 6:69-83.
[8] Couyoumdjian, op. cit.
[9] The major sources for the history and management of the locos fishery come from Reyes, Eduardo F.  1986. ¿Qué pasó con el loco? Crónica de un colapso anunciado.
Revista Chile Pesquero N° 36, junio de 1986. On line at and Gallardo, op. cit.; Gallardo Fernández, Gloria L. 2008.  From Seascapes of Extinction to Seascapes of Confidence.  Chapter 5. On line at http://journals.sfu.ca/coactionbks/index.php/Gallardo/article/view/38 and Meltzoff S. K., Lichtensztajn Y G & Stotz W. 2002. Competing visions for marine tenure and co-management: Genesis of a marine management area system in Chile. Journal of Coastal Management 30: 85-99, 2002.
[10] Meltzoff, 2002. op cit. p. 88
[11] Anonymous. 1882.  Nuevo manual de cocina: conteniendo 377 recetas de guisos escojidos de las cocinas francesas, española, chilena, inglesa e italiana: arregladas para el uso de las familias del país.. Valparaíso : Libr. del Mercurio de Orestes L. Tornero  p. 34 On line at http://www.memoriachilena.cl/temas/documento_detalle.asp?id=MC0003181
[12] Budge de Edwars, Olga.  1935 “Consejos útiles y pequeños secretos para obtener mejor resultado en la confección de estas recetas” p. 32-36 La buena mesa. 2a. ed. revisada y aumentada. Santiago : Imp. Universitaria


  1. Jim,
    Is been so long that I totally forgot about the empanadas de locos, my grandmother was a expert... I remember so many afternoon spend "apaleando" and cleaning the locos.
    I would dive in some locos con mayo right now.

  2. Pilar,

    You can make them in the US; Amazon.com sells canned locos--but they are pretty expensive.

  3. I love Chilean Loco. I import seafood from South America and had only eaten frozen product untill a trip I took to Chile a year and a half ago. Our Loco page is www.seatechcorp.com/loco

  4. I love empanadas de locos, chupe de locos, locos mayo, mmmm!!


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