Seafood Specialities of the South Pacific
By “Awake!” correspondent in Chile
IT WAS 1520. The first around-the-world voyagers, sailing through the narrow strait they had just discovered near the southern tip of South America, could hardly believe their eyes! Here, where penetrating winds blow from the polar regions, naked Indians were paddling their canoes; their bodies being protected by a thick coating of seal oil.
Despite the rigorous climate these Indians enjoyed a relatively healthful existence, living entirely on a raw fish diet. Years later, however, when so-called civilization invaded the area, they were decimated by contagious diseases. But in small snack bars up and down the long coast of Chile derivations of their raw fish diet have outlived them.
Before you shudder at the thought of eating raw fish, think: Have you ever confronted raw oysters on the half shell bedded on cracked ice? Here in Chile there are many other tasty specialities derived from the offshore waters of the South Pacific.
A Seafood-loving Country
In 1970 Chile harvested 1,300,000 tons of food from the sea, to rank high among the world’s fishing industry countries. As far as seafood consumption is concerned, Chile is first among Latin-American countries; each Chilean, on the average, eating forty pounds annually. Some coastal families eat almost every day what the sea offers.
Here in Concepción we find pushcarts on city streets loaded with dark-green porcupine-like balls called erizos (sea urchins). Cracking open the hard shell, we find inside pale yellow tongues arranged like a sunflower. If we scoop them out and add lemon juice and pepper, ah! What a novel taste!
A visit to the municipal market is an interesting experience. Here we sit down at a white-tiled counter, and order a combination of raw seafood known as mariscal. Once the plate is in front of us we can distinguish something familiar—small clams, but what are the other things? The waitress tells us their names: Cholhuas (mussels), machas and almejas (two types of clams), ulte (chopped cooked seaweed), and erizos with sliced onions, parsley, pepper and lemon juice. If we like we can help ourselves to aji (hot pepper), but we think the seafood alone is more refreshing.
In the summer some families delight in searching for their own shellfish. Crawling over the rocks at low tide, they wrest small sea snails from the rough surfaces. Then, hurrying home, they patiently dig out the tiny bodies and dress them with onions, lemon, parsley and chili.
Known only in Chile and southern Peru (where it is smaller), the loco is one of the more fashionable kinds of shellfish. It has firm white meat and tastes a little like a scallop but is much firmer. Bedded on a small potato salad with shredded lettuce and mayonnaise and strips of red pepper, it is served as an appetizer.
Perhaps these shellfish acquired their status because not everyone masters the art of preparing them. Some roll them in salt to marinate overnight, and then beat them the next day. Others put each loco with wood ashes inside a strong piece of cloth, and then hit them against a hard surface enough times to bring them to the desired blandness. After washing, they are ready to be dropped into boiling water or steamed in bubbling oil until they are soft enough to eat. However, until they are cool they should not be tested with a fork, otherwise they remain tough.
The Longest Plant
Taking a train up the coast from Concepción, we notice a donkey plodding along with rolls of dark brown strips on its back. The strips are piled up like firewood but look more like long tubes. Did you know that this is probably the longest plant in the world? It can reach a hundred feet in length! You would call it seaweed.
There are many things that can be done with cochayuyu, the Quechua Indian name for the edible algae. The best part, called ulte, is the stem before it branches off into the long floating arms. It is first cooked and then chopped up, so that it can be mixed with sliced onions, lemon juice and oil in a salad. The sliced onions are usually soaked in water first to eliminate the strong taste, and then they are squeezed dry before they are added to the ulte.
In many small grocery stores piles of the dried cochayuyu can be seen. To look at it one would think it to be uneatable, but after it is boiled in water it can be combined with sliced onions, mashed potatoes and a beaten egg to make a baked dish, or it can be dipped in a batter and fried in hot fat.
Luche, another type of edible seaweed, grows somewhat in the form of a large green pansy. It can be made into fried meat pies known as empanadas, only without the meat. There is also the dish called mar y tierra (sea and land), a stew made from luche with potatoes and fried onions. All of these seaweed dishes are valuable sources of iodine in the diet.
Other Seafood Specialities
As our train travels along hugging the coast, we notice every now and then halves of pescada or merluzza (hake) hung over barbed wire to dry in the summer sun and wind. Afterward, they are stored for use in the winter when ocean storms make fishing impossible. Children love to nibble on chunks of dried hake for a between-meal snack. Their mothers break up the dried fish in boiling water with potatoes and onions to make a hearty soup for a chilly day.
Our train stops at Dichato Beach, and eager salesmen hold up sticks threading a half-dozen raw, razor-shell clams called narvajuelos. Some passengers have come prepared with chili to daub on their clams. Others, heading for the Chilean interior, seize the opportunity to buy a black- or red-bellied congrio, a sort of conger eel, to take home with them. The white meat, slightly sweeter than other fish, is fit for the best restaurants.
Although the crabs are rather small in Dichato, at the southern extremity of Chile there is a giant variety called centolla (from the Latin meaning one hundred eyes), which provides chunks of white meat with tender red skin like lobster. These are similar to the king crabs from Japanese waters, but are larger.
That the waters here abound with fish was evident at the tenth world championship of undersea fishing held in September 1971. On that occasion each diver averaged nearly 400 pounds of fish in twelve hours of competition! Included in the South Pacific harvest are indeed many sea-food specialities that delight the taste.