On Tuesday, Santiago was back to the horário normal and it was business as usual. I went out with Mark in the morning to grab breakfast for him and half of Santiago was queuing for caffeine and medialunas. The streets were busy, roads were jammed and the ambient urban noise level was up.
Finally, 2017 was starting for good in the country’s capital.
After the holiday break, I figured the market would be packed with fresh veggies and fruits, so we walked to La Vega Central to enjoy what the Chilean Central Valley grows. This market is huge with over 500 dairy, meat, goods and merchandise stores. We walked between the stalls selling carrots, zucchini, corn, avocados, strawberries, pineapples… This is not the kind of market where every two steps, you wonder what the hell you are looking at. Products are familiar—except maybe mangoes and pineapples, you’d find these fruits and veggies easily in Northern America and Europe, thanks to globalization. However, the colours, size of produce and freshness are amazing. Bonus surprise: the number of cats hiding everywhere in the market! I guess they haven’t found the fish market?
After La Vega Central, we headed to the smaller and more touristic Mercado Central that specialized in fish and seafood. Most of the market is now dedicated to semi-fancy restaurants for tourists but you can still buy octopus and sea bream by the kilo in the side alleys.
The irony is, we are fairly unlikely to enjoy all these fresh products in Santiago but for the fruits we buy. Indeed, there are roughly three kinds of food places. First are Peruvian-Chilean restaurants, usually franchise chains with a Peruvian landmark in the name—Líneas de Nazca, for instance—, pictures of Machu Picchu in the dining room and Inca Cola on the beverage menu. They specialize in seafood and are somewhat upscale with mains from $15 and up. Then comes la comida china, Chinese restaurants with the usual chop suey and wonton soup plus chifa dishes—a mix of Peruvian and Chinese cuisine, like arroz chaufa, fried rice. Finally, you have dozens of fast food joins offering hot dogs (a local obsession), burgers, fries and meat, chicken, etc. Street food—not strictly sold from carts in the streets but also from a number of small businesses—includes pizza, churros, mani (peanuts coated with sugar) and empanadas.
Overall, food is meant to be filling and convenient rather than a gastronomical experience, although I’m sure dedicated foodies can find fancier and more elaborate restaurants. Sushi places are popping up all over, for instance, but most Santiaguinos seem to enjoy these small bites as an appetizer with a beer or two.
I’m not complaining. Mark is happy with ham-and-cheese sandwiches and street food, Feng usually picks Chinese food or a burger, I love empanadas and we buy the rest from the supermarket. I enjoy yogurt, different kinds of breads are baked several times a day and sold by weight, and pastries are delicious and cheap!