At 2653 miles N to S & an average of 109 miles E to W,  Chile isn’t a country so much as a fat coastline. Naturally, then, seafood is a crux of its culinary & economic identity—& the Mercado Central in Santiago a sparkling exemplar thereof, as is clear the second you set foot in the entrance hall.

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Breathtaking as it all is, excitement reaches its peak upon the sighting of creatures rarely if ever encountered in the US—

Marketlocos Locos: Chilean abalone

Marketpiures
Piures: the “strangest sea critter Andrew Zimmern has ever eaten,” they seem to be sea squirts, which according to Wikipedia undergo “many physical changes” in the course of their lifetime, “one of the most interesting being the digestion of the cerebral ganglion, which controls movement & is the equivalent of the human brain. From this comes the common saying that the sea squirt ‘eats its own brain.'” Yes!

Marketurchins Erizos: sea urchins

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Ostiones: scallops in the shell

Marketoctopus Pulpo: octopus, complete with gaping siphon

—not to mention the ultimate thrill of tasting them.

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Abalone—darker & more pungent than the US version—topped with a mustard-mayo mixture over potato salad

Marketpiures2Piures, marinated & served at room temperature, topped with a variation on pebre

Described variously as “outrageously strong” “iodine bombs,” I found sea squirts to be anything but: watery, rubbery, passively rather than aggressively sour—not uninteresting but not particularly savory either—sort of the Noah Baumbach character in the cast of Chilean seafood.

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2 shrimp dishes

The Spanish-style preparation on the left in sizzling garlic & oil appears to be the more typical (see below); salt & black pepper, meanwhile, seem to be used sparingly if at all, their function in Chilean cookery relegated to DIY table salt as well as my new favorite seasonings, merquén & pebre (see here).

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Crab in more sizzling garlic & machas à la parmesana, the wonderful red wedge clams broiled with parmesan you can also see here

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Broiled mixed fish, including salmon, fresh conger eel & albacora—not a type of tuna but a cousin of swordfish

Eye- & button-poppingly enough, after all that came fresh mixed fruit, the sort of folded custard of which Chileans seem to be especially fond,

Marketfruit Marketcustard

& the refreshing, none-too-sweet street snack known as mote con huesillo, or wheatberries stewed with dried peaches, of which I myself have become especially fond (see also here).

Mariachis roved throughout lunch, but the far more entertaining floor show involved the tableside preparation of whole steamed king crab;

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any wine geeks within 50 feet, meanwhile, might have spent their meal gawking at my own table, surrounded as I was by such bright oenological lights as

MarketAlpanaandTKCanada’s Véronique Rivest—1 of 12 semifinalists at the Concours du Meilleur Sommelier du Monde 2010 (see here) & the winner of the Peter Lehman Shiraz Award; Chicago-based master somm, author & TV personality Alpana Singh, who has her own damn Wikipedia page; &

MarketFionaillustrious UK-based pairing expert Fiona Beckett (who has already knocked out a post on ceviche & pisco sours).

The sign above her head doesn’t read “Experiencia Memorable” for nothing.