Sunday, February 7, 2010

Eating Iquique: Seafood and Ají

I was wrong. There is picante Chilean food. (see "Do they eat chili in Chile?"). But you have to go a long way north to find it.


The dish above, Pescado a la Huara-Huara, is a filet of fish sautéed in olive oil with chilies, whole garlic cloves, spring onions and potatoes from the Restaurant El Viejo Wagon, in Iquique.  The sauce was delicious, rich with olive oil, garlic, wine and chilies, but not excessively hot, if one wisely left the chilies and garlic uneaten. But of course I ate the chilies; not all of them, but the sweet red ones (páprikas,) and some of the greenish yellow ones (ají verde), and one of the round rocotos; but only a little of the golden Peruvian ajís amarillos.  Unfortunately, that pretty well flamed my taste buds for the fish, a panyagua, said to be one of the most flavorful of the region; but it was worth it.  I hadn’t overdosed on chilies for years; it still feels good.

panyagua Hemilutjanus macropthalmos,
Grape-eye seabass 

It wasn’t simply coincidence that I ate this dish in Iquique.  Although thoroughly Chilean, 125 years after being “liberated” (along with the nitrate mines) from Peru, there is still a Peruvian tang to its cuisine.   A port city of 225,000 plus, Iquique is Chile’s most cosmopolitan city, with a foreign-born population of almost 10%:  ¾  Peruvians and Bolivians attracted by the availability of employment, but also Chinese and South Asians associated with the “Zofri,” Iquique’s duty free zone and a scattering of Americans from  the mining industry.[1]  And there is also a strong dash of the international from Chileans of English, American, Spanish, Greek, Croatian, Chinese origin whose ancestors immigrated in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

But regardless ethnic origin, the real highlight of Iquique’s cuisine is the seafood.  Our first meal, and one of the best, was at the ornate Restauran Casino Española, built in 1904 in Moorish style as a club for Spanish owners and managers of the nitrate mines.   My choice was easy; the menu included mulata. one of many Chilean fishes that seldom appear on menus in Santiago. I had never tried it; its average size of 3 or 4 kg. in the fish market is too big for us and I had never seen it in fillets.  But from talking to the fish men, I knew it to be a firm fish, good grilled or sauteed.  On the menu it was Basque style, with a sauce of sautéed onions, cream, white wine, and saffron—and topped with freshly fried potato rounds, only slightly thicker than chips.  A good choice, a fine dish, and a restaurant not to be missed in Iquique.

Mulata, Graus nigra

Our next seafood meal was at Puerto Camaron, a small restaurant on the pedestrian mall in the historic city center:  An abundant shrimp salad and a shrimp pasta Alfredo.  Good, though probably with frozen shrimp from Ecuador.  We saw no fresh shrimp at the fish markets

The most common fish in Iquique this summer is palometa (Coryphaena hippurus, dolphin fish or mahi mahi), the whole fish and filets to the right below.  (The large center sections of fish to the left are albacorilla or toyo, Mustelus mento, a popular shark, known for its mild bone-free steaks.)

Everyone seemed to have an abundant supply of palometa, including Doña Margarita, filleting one below, who said they were locally available only in summer.  They were selling for 1,500 pesos a kg. ($3/lb) for whole fish; a low price for fresh fish in Chile (frozen filets are available in the US at $15.50 a lb.—plus shipping, fresh runs $25 a lb.)

Fried palometa at El Wagon


A highly recommended Iquique fish we did not try is cabrilla (Paralabrax humeralis), an inshore rock fish shown below on a local sport fisherman’s stringer (with an unidentified orange “rock cod”).   Turestel (Chile’s excellent guide book), recommends that you have it al agua, evidently in a Chinese inspired soup (?) with green onion, rocoto chilies, ginger, and soy sauce. 

Cabrilla (Paralabrax humeralis)       

Cabrilla at the Neptuno

Another Turestel recommendation is peje sapo al vapor, steamed toad fish. I saw it on the menu at the Neptuno, a champion Iquique fish restaurant with a huge menu of seafood and reasonable prices, but didn’t order it.  Said to be “extremely tasty” though a little soft” and full of small bones, it seems to be most commonly served in soups.  I’ll have to try it next time.

Peje sapo común, common clingfish, Sicyases sanguineus

The Neptuno, where my wife had fried empanadas and locos con mayo (Chilean abalone with mayonnaise) and I had ceviche de dorado (yellowtail marinated in lime juice) followed by fried palometa (mahi mahi).

[1] Iquique tiene casi el 10% de su población extranjera y es la ciudad más cosmopolita del país. Plataforma Urbana. Oct. 25, 2009.  On line at

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