Sunday, February 8, 2009

First Impressions

Three weeks after retiring from a Midwestern US university I found myself in Santiago, enthusiastic about being in Chile, single, and looking forward to several months of travel, food and wine. Four years later I again find myself in Santiago, enthusiastic about living in Chile, married to a Chilena, and looking forward to more travel, food and wine… and to writing a little about what I’m learning.

My first memorable meal in Chile, according to my journal, came on my third day here:

The restaurant, Mariscadas de ¨Somewhere¨ was solidly middle class, nicely decorated, with girl-next-door waitresses, white table cloths, and tables a little closer than ideal, but “nice.” The clientele was young and not-so-young couples, all with cell phones which rang during dinner, all dressed casually--women in pants, men in jeans or kakis and knit shirts or thereabouts. After a brief look at the menu, I told the waitress, a girl in her 20s, that I was an ignorant foreigner and would need help ordering. The menu had two main sections, first courses and main courses, each consisting on a list of fish or shell fish followed by prices. The appetizers were mostly shellfish, and the entrees were mostly fin fish, but not much more was clear. I recognized about half the shell fish on the appetizers page: clams, oysters, scallops, mussels, some other kind of mussels, more clams, plus a assortments of things I didn’t recognize at all…. Including, it turned out, urchins, limpets, and ???? I asked about the first item and she drew urchins on the back of the napkin…. Pretty good, I thought. The second item on the list was mariscada, which I was told was a mixture, so I ordered that. For a main course, I ordered congrio, conger eel, one of the most common and favorite fish hereabouts, plus a half bottle of sauvignon blanc. I thought it was a good sign when she brought French rolls, butter, aji (Chilean Spanish for chile or salsa [actually pebre¸ about which more will be forthcoming] ) and a small bottle (like in a spice rack) of lemon juice. This was followed by the mariscada, an oblong bowl-plate like you might expect to be served lasagna in well filled with assorted sea creatures. The bottom layer seemed to be raw clams and oysters, and above were cold steamed mussels of two or more types, octopus, crab claw meat, crab body meat, clams about the size of cat tongues, red stuff that could only have been sea urchin guts, etc., etc. Plus sea weed. And good. All very oceanic and cold and sharp and clean. Having finished that, I was well along toward full, but then came the fish.

On the menu it was listed as ¨fish with side dishes¨, and the sides turned out to be a choice of rice, mashed potatoes (puré), or various salads, the first of which was listed simply as ensaslada Chileña--tomatoes, onions and parsley. I chose that. The fish was a grapefruit-sized chunk from the creature’s middle, about 3 inches of torso, including the two flaps of meat and skin that surrounded the innards—fried. Battered and fried. Alone on the plate, battered and fried, big as a softball. Not a culinary marvel. The fish, stripped of its slightly greasy coating, was good, naturally good, perfectly cooked, innocent of seasoning or sauce, though the lemon juice helped. The salad was ample for two (people probably order different sides and split them, I had only the one). Ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced onions and a medium sprinkle of parsley. Dressing was up to the diner, from a salt shaker, an oil bottle and the lemon juice. No pepper. (Whoever introduces the waiter-propelled pepper grinder to Chile will become rich.) Big meal; I ate about half…. And, as you may have guessed, finished the wine. Coffee (expres doble) followed, total price about $20 US including tip.

Congrio negro (credit)

A good meal, and interesting. Very familiar  (seafood cocktail, fried fish, salad), but with a lot of differences.The moderately spicy pebre accompanying the bread. No obvious seasonings on the fish, mariscada, or salad; salt but no pepper on the table; clear oil (not olive). The fish served alone on the plate, perfectly cooked, beneath the slightly greasy batter.