Sunday, May 9, 2010

Eating Chilean Fish

National Shame! CHILEans only eat 7 KILOS of fish a yeaR!  LA Cuarta.  Miércoles 5 de Mayo de 2010.  

 Reader comment:
Yeah, expensive seafood and fish in Santiago;  with 1,500 pesos you get two little fish no bigger than this, they don’t even let the little things grow, for 700 pesos you get five little clams, and for 750 a few mussels, not enough for a poor fish stew.  On the other hand for 1500 pesos you get a DOUBLE GIANT HOTDOG WITH EVERYTHING ON IT, THIS BIG, DRINK INCLUDED. DELICIOUS. HOW WILL YOU FILL YOUR TUMMY????[1] Janis

Sad but true, Chilean fish consumption is less that half the world’s average, down to about 38% of 1995 levels, and fish is more expensive than other meats (see What Chileans Eat: Chilean National Diet).   

Why?  Part of the answer is that Chile is the 8th most important fish exporter in the world, with exports of about $2.5 billion in 2006.[2] In January 2010 Chile exported 126,340 metric tons of fish and fishmeal (22%).[3] If we exclude the fishmeal (used mainly for animal feeds) that’s about 6.5 kg. of exported fish per person; a half kg. less that the average Chilean eats in a year.  And assuming January exports are typical, this year’s exports of around 78 kg. per person will be a little over 10 times domestic consumption.

Photo:  Stall in Santiago’s Mercado Central, Aníbal Pées Labory 

What this means, of course, is that Santiago fish buyers are competing with the 99.8% of the world’s population that isn’t Chilean for Chilean fish.   So prices are high; not at the levels of importers like the US, Japan and Europe, but still high.

But if you like fish, can afford it occasionally (or frequently), there’s a reasonable chance that you’d like to know more about what’s available.  So….

A shoppers guide to Chilean Fish

Merluza (hake, Merluccius spp.)

Merluza is Chile’s most popular fish, and among the least expensive, currently around 2,000 CLP a kg.  ($1.80/lb) for small whole fish.  The flesh is white, soft, and mild tasting.  If you order “fried fish” in Chile, you will usually get merluza. If not fried, Chileans usually serve it baked or poached with a sauce.  It’s a bit fragile and tends to come apart in stews and chowders. The smaller of the two merluza species (M. gayi), commonly called pescada in Chile, is often 300 gm. or so whole, appropriate for a single serving as below, but  they may be over a kg. The other species (M. australis), commonly sold as merluza Española in Chile, is usually larger. Merluza are also available as frozen filets.[4] 

Pescada, boned and seasoned,                               and pan fried.

Reineta, (pomfret or southern rays bream, Brama australis) 

The second most popular Chilean fish, reineta, is likely to be your favorite if you want a mild, white, firm fleshed fish for grilling, broiling or sautéing. They are also among the less expensive fish, at around 2,800 CLP during most of the 2009-10 summer and now at 3,600 in the local feria (street market).. They commonly weigh 1 to 2.5 kg, and a two kg. fish yields four serving-sized filets.  Frozen filets usually cost around 5,000 – 5,500 CLP/kg ($4.50-5.00/lb).

If you like fish on the grill, reineta are ideal.  Grill the whole fish, cleaned but not scaled, and scored through the skin on three or four places on each side, over a medium charcoal fire, for around 10 minutes per inch of thickness (that’s for an internal temp 140° F).  The scales keep the fish from sticking to the grill and the skin can easily be peeled off for serving.  For instructions see How to Cook a Whole Fish.

Jurel (Jack Mackerel, Trachurus symmetricus)

Jurel, is the third most popular Chilean fish, and one of the least expensive.  Like most mackerel, they have oily, strongly flavored flesh and are not for those who only like “fish that don’t taste like fish.” They are usually baked with a savory sauce or broiled. A citrus based marinade can help tone down the flavor. Jurel are among Chile’s most important fish for export as fish meal, and are also available canned; an inexpensive substitute for tuna. Here are some recipes in English.

Salmón (Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar)

Chilean farmed salmon are delicious, intrinsically good for you, and economically important for Chile, but they are contaminated with PCBs, dioxin and other hazardous chemicals, and salmon farms are a serious threat to Chile’s environment.  (A disease, infectious salmon anemia (ISA), has dramatically reduced production in recent years, though it is no threat to humans.) There is no clear answer as to whether you should eat farmed salmon, and if so, how often (see Eating/Not-eating Chilean Salmon). 

Salmon is a medium priced fish in central Chile; whole fish presently cost 4 to 5,000 CLP a kg. in ferias, and more in supermarkets.  Frozen salmon filets are occasionally as low as 4,400-5,000 CLP/kg. ($4.00-4.50 lb.) in supermarkets.

Trucha arcoíris (rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss) is farmed in the same manner as salmon and has the same advantages and disadvantages, thought it is not subject to ISA. 

Congrio (conger, Genypterus sp.)

The congrio is the most Chilean of fish, subject of a famous poem by Pablo Neruda, Oda al caldillo de congrio (Ode to Congrio Chowder), translated below by Margaret Sayers Peden.  It begins:

In the storm-tossed
lives the rosy conger,
giant eel
of snowy flesh.
And in Chilean
along the coast,
was born the chowder,
thick and succulent,
a boon to man.

Congrio dorado (G. blacodes)
Congrio are delicious fish, mild flavored with firm white meat, similar to monk fish. It is excellent in stews and soups, baked, or fried.  It can be filleted, but is frequently cut into thick steaks. It is medium priced, presently 2,500(congrio negro) to 4,000 CLP/kg. (colorado) and up.

caldillo de congrio photo cariberry, recipe in English

Corvina (drum, Cilus gilberti)
Corvina is a white fleshed, medium flavored fish similar to the redfish or channel Bass of the Gulf of Mexico.  Although it can weigh up to 15 kg., fish of 2 to 3 kg. are common, with both smaller and larger occasionally available. It is priced similar to salmon and congrio.  Corvina is a favorite fish for ceveche, or baked or grilled al la plancha (on a metal plate) and served with a sauce, often a salsa marinera with clams, mussels, shrimp, etc.  It is sometimes translated “Chilean sea bass” on menus, but it is not the threatened Patagonian toothfish.

Baked stuffed corvina

Robalo (Patagonial blennie, Faulkland Mulet, Eleginops maclovinus)

Most abundant in  far southern waters where it is fished on an industrial scale, it is locally available in fillets and as whole fish. It is a white fleshed, mild fish.  Fry or grill a la plancha.

Blalnquillo, cabrilla común (Tilefish, Ocean whitefish, Prolatilus jugularis)

Mild white fish, filets are in the supermarkets at around 4,000 CLP kg.

Sierra (Snoek, Thyrsites atun)

A long thin inexpensive fish of up to a meter, sierra is a popular fish in South Africa, where they are called Snoek.  The flesh is white, with darker strips along the mid lines, and is similar to albacore.  There are a lot of large easily removed bones. Sierra are usually served grilled or stuffed with tomatoes, cheese and sausages for the Chiloe dish cancato, below.

 Tollo (Speckled smooth hound, Mustelus mento)

Tollo is a small inoffensive near shore-shark, common (like beachgoers) in the surf on sandy beaches. The flesh is white, mild, boneless, and tasty, though some suggest soaking in milk before cooking.  An ideal fish to serve to children who can learn to like fish with out fear of bones, it makes good “fish fingers.”  It is moderately priced, and usually sold skinned and headless in ferias.

Albacora (swordfish, Xiphias gladius)

Not the light-meat tuna, albacore, as English speakers expect, but swordfish, albacora is an expensive fish, usually sold in steaks.  It is a popular fish with a “meaty” texture when grilled. 

Because it is at the top of the food chain, it accumulates heavy metals and the USFDA recommends that swordfish not be eaten because of high concentrations of mercury.  But if you do eat it, Chilean swordfish, which is harpooned by artisanal fishermen, is preferable to those caught by long-line methods that result in a large by-catch of sharks.

 Linguado (flounder, sole, Paralichthys adspersus)

One of the most expensive of Chilean fish, at 8,000 CLP or more per kg., linguado are found in and just beyond the surf on sandy beaches from the Peruvian border south to Chiloe.  When you see people fishing in the surf with long rods, they are usually fishing for linguado. A delicious, white fleshed, mild fish, eaten fried, grilled, or poached; like Dover sole.


There are hundreds of eatable fish in Chilean waters, so the few I have discussed here are only the most common ones available in Santiago.  For some others, and for shellfish, see my other posts on seafood.  And for a more complete list with pictures, see Peces de Chile

Where and how to buy fresh Chilean fish

The best selection, the best and freshest fish and the best prices are at caletas, fishermen’s wharves where artisanal fishermen sell their catch. The fish is absolutely fresh, and there are species that never arrive in metropolitan supermarkets.

The caleta at Horcon

Unfortunately, that’s not usually possible for Santiagueños, so the next best choice is the Mercado Central, in the photo at the top, or neighborhood ferias, like the one below, where I buy almost all my fish. Here’s a list of feria locations.

 The feria fish sellers know the fish and their customers, and can be counted on to recommend the best buys of the day and how to prepare them. When you buy whole fish the vendors will clean and filet it to your specifications (a tip is appreciated). Feria prices are usually higher than at the Mercado central, but lower that supermarkets, and the fish is fresh; not always the case in supermarkets.

How do you know it’s fresh?

Fresh fish looks alive; the eyes are clear and shiny, the gills are red [5] and the skin is moist and smooth, not dry and wrinkled. Fresh fish smells like nothing; or perhaps like the sea.  If it looks dead and smells like fish, don’t buy it.  At the feria and the fish market you can touch the fish, smell it, and make sure it’s fresh.  At the supermarket that’s not always possible.  And when it’s sold in little trays, filleted, plastic wrapped and “sanitary” you won’t know until you get it home. 

Link: Prize winning photographer (and Eating Chilean reader) Mark J. Davis, has had his fine photo essay,  "Industrial Fishing Threatens Chile's Fishermen,published in Time Magazine.  Take a look. (Thanks Mark).

And for other Chilean seafood, see these links:

[1] Si, caros mariscos y pescados en Santiago, con luka y media salen dos pescaditos asi de chitititos, no los dejan ni crecer a los pobres, con 700 salen 5 almejitas y 750 unos pocos de choritos, no alcanza ni para una paila marina pobre. en cambio con 1500, te sale un COMPLETO DOBLE GIGANTE DE ESTE VUELO, CON BEBIDA INCLUIDA, QUE RICO, COMO QUEDA LA GUATITA?????  (Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine.)
[2] FACT SHEET: The international fish trade and world fisheries, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 2006. On line at 
[3] Recent Developments In Fish Trade, Committee On Fisheries Sub-Committee On Fish Trade Twelfth Session, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 26-30 April 201. On linea at
[4] The basic sources for all fish are Recursos Pesqueros, Instituto de Fomento Pesquero, On line at;  Peses de Chile, Principales Peces Marinos de Importancia Comercial de la Zona Centro-Sur de Chile. On line at; and Peses de Chile On line at Data of fish popularity is from a 1999 survey of people in the greater Santiago area, summarized at Eating Seafood in Chile, on line at  Recipes in English are widely available at
[5] If the fish has soaked in ice water, the gills may be pink and bleached looking on fresh fish. But if they are muddy-brown, it’s old.


  1. Cuando era chica veraneabamos en una caleta de pescadores, comer robalo, vieja y pescar lenguado eran las entretenciones del verano.
    Cómo fue vivir el terremoto? espero que no hayan tenido daños.

  2. Y todavía puede hacer todo esto en las caletas chicas… que rico.

    Acá en Santiago nosotros no sufrimos ningún daño menos la caída de una pared del jardín, pero en torres de apartamentos muchos tuvieron daños interiores. Gracias por preguntar.


  3. Thanks for this great post. Check out for a documentary on Neruda where there's going to be a poetry sequence of Ode to Conger Eel Chowder filmed in a restaurant just north of Isla Negra!


  4. Great fish coverage!
    Do you know of any consumer guides for buying fish in Chile ie over-fished species?

    I have used them in New Zealand

    and in Australia

    and they are very useful.

  5. Thanks, Chica. Unfortunately I don't know of any guide covering Chilean fish. Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch covers a few exported Chilean fish (farmed salmon, Patagonian toothfish, etc.) but I've found nothing in Spanish or English that covers the common fish mentioned in the blog. But if anyone knows of one, please let me know.

  6. Just back from our first visit to Chile, and I wish I had found this article before. Well,it is stored away for our next trip or helping friends that go. I think we averaged fish meals 1.3 times/day! That is not counting fish appetizer followed by a fish entree.
    Thanks for this very nice piece of work.

  7. Great blog for tanslators. Was having a hard time translating some chilean fishes names

  8. I'm not a big seafood fan, but I will eat is if the occasion arises. Pretty much everyone in my family is an avid seafood eater except for me. Perhaps one day that will change. Next week we will be going out to eat to a seafood place, it will possibly change there. Maybe the seafood restaurant will have some of the fish listed here in the article.

  9. Deberias probar el chancharro, los puyes y los choritos de chaihuín

    1. Con mucho gusto. El chancharro es muy parecido a various especias de "rockfish" de la costa de california que he comido. Son ricos. Choritos me gusta y como frecuentemente, pero nunca los de chaihuín y los puyes... no lo los conocí pero Google me dice que son "galaxias" que se comen como morrallas.

      wwwwww says I should try chancharro (red rockfish), puyes (small fish eaten as whitemait), and mussels from Chaihuín. And I'd be happy to. Thanks wwwwww.


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