Santiago de Chile, 4 March 2012:
I spent several happy hours yesterday exploring two great markets in Santiago’s downtown—Mercado Central and La Vega, on opposite sides of the Mapocho, the river that runs through the heart of this handsome South American capitol.
La Vega, on the north bank, was the one recommended to me by chef Emilio Peschiera of the eponymous restaurant where I’d dined the night before (more on that later). Emilio is Peruvian and very proud of his origins. In fact, it was said, until very recently and until this very day by some, that the best food in Santiago is always in Peruvian restaurants. I’m no one to judge (I’m just a wandering tourist here) but if Peruvian cooks and chefs are coming to La Vega for their materia prima, they certainly are shopping right. It was an amazing array of beans, grains, vegetables, fruits—and the quality and variety were stunning.
The first thing that struck me as I entered the covered market were two stalls on opposite sides each with a display of humongous fresh ears of corn (choclo in Chileno), at least a foot long and with big, fat, pale gold kernels. According to the signs this is corn for making humitos, the Chilean-Peruvian version of tamales, or pastel de choclo, which you could call Chilean shepherd’s pie. It’s one of Chile’s great dishes, a savory meat stew, spiced with cumin, often with raisins and black olives added, topped by a crust made from ground fresh corn.
And, yes, you could make pastel de choclo with our ordinary garden corn (I’ve done it), but these big ears are what it’s supposed to be—quite starchy and when ground fresh they make a thick, creamy paste to seal the top of the meat stew. According to Jim Stuart, a North American anthropologist who lives in Chile, this type of big-kernelled corn, which looks like something antique and Incan, is likely a cross between native varieties and American dent corn introduced from the U.S. in the 19th century. (Jim Stuart’s blog, www.eatchile.blogspot.com, is a great resource for all kinds of arcana about Chilean food history.)
But that’s not all—there were also ears of deep blue corn that was breathtakingly beautiful. And nearly a dozen different varieties of potatoes. Ditto of chili peppers. As usual, visiting markets in foreign places, I longed for a kitchen to take all this back to.
And then I found the Jugo Fresco stall where a throng had collected to call out demands from an array of fresh seasonal berries, melons, bananas, pineapples, peaches, and other fruits. Scooped up and dropped in a big blender with either powdered milk or ice, they were buzzed into fabulous smoothies and poured out for the crowd. I had strawberry and pineapple (not ananas, here it’s called pina) but I couldn’t take a picture because my hands were full.