As I prepared to write about last weekend’s visit from our friend Nikki, I took a minute to reminisce. We worked with Nikki at Vientiane International School in 2009-10, and she quickly became part of our family. In fact, we enjoyed weekly “family night” dinners at local restaurants in Vientiane with Nikki and another friend, Carol. One of our favorite outings was to this kooky place: Khouvieng Country.
Nikki now works at Lincoln, an international school in Buenos Aires, just a short flight away. What a treat to have her come play for the weekend!
We had booked a cooking class, in part because Nikki’s fiancé, Jon, is an avid cook. Unfortunately, he had to cancel his trip to Chile to visit his ailing grandmother in Canada. (She is feeling much better – whew!) Tony had scheduled an English Department retreat at our apartment, so he couldn’t participate in the cooking class.
The National Geographic book, Food Journeys of a Lifetime, included Mercado Central in its list of “Top 10 Food Markets.” An excerpt:
Under a wrought-iron, art nouveau canopy dating from 1872, this animated fish market groans with an extraordinary shoal of sea creatures, from barnacles to giant squid, many unlabeled, untranslatable, or unknown outside Chile. Marvel at the fishmongers’ speed and skill. If the thought of identifying and preparing the fish is too much, onsite restaurants offer local dishes like paila marina (Chilean bouillabaisse).
Felipe shared some information about the market’s history and architecture, warned us about paying tourist prices at the popular seafood restaurants, and pointed to the type of fish we would prepare at our class: Spanish hake, or merluza.
From Mercado Central, we crossed the street to stroll through a flower market and on to La Vega Central. I never tire of this place. Piles of produce pop with color, and I revel in the buzz of busy vendors and harried shoppers. Felipe purchased fish, meat, tomatoes, and other ingredients while the rest of us snapped photos and tried to stay out of everyone’s way. The crowds swelled as we explored. Nikki and I agreed this was a place best visited in the early morning, before most Chileans rise and shine.
After the market tour, we hailed a couple taxis for a ride to the cooking class venue, located in a residential area. From the street, the two-story house resembles its neighbors. Inside, however, the foyer opens into a bright spacious kitchen with an island equipped with two cooktops. We sat on stools around the island while Felipe issued instructions. We helped a bit with the chopping and mixing. Most of the prep work had been done before our arrival. My kind of cooking!
My pathetic contribution to our meal involved rolling out and cutting the dough for churrascas, a traditional Chilean bread. They turned out a little deformed but tasty. We ate them with pebre, a typical Chilean salsa. At the request of our finicky group, Felipe patiently made three versions: normal, one with no spices, and one with no cilantro.
Felipe poured glasses of pinot noir from the Chilean winery Leyda, which I am adding to my list of local favorites.
For this wine pairing, we sipped Leyda chardonnay. I’m not usually a chardy fan, but this one worked perfectly with the fish.
Overall, we enjoyed a lot of laughs, some tasty drinks, a bit of tipsiness, and delicious food. Could I replicate these dishes at home? Most likely, no. The “recipes” we took home were obviously written by someone who generally makes them from memory. Some don’t even have measurements, and the humita en olla recipe includes instructions like “thresh the corn.” What does that even mean? When you’re as clueless in the kitchen as I am, specificity is key.
Obviously, this day was designed for entertainment first and education second, which was fine with me!
I felt a little guilty about not being a better tour guide, but frankly, it felt great to just hang out on the balcony and catch up. Thanks for making the trip, Nikki!