“In the storm-tossed Chilean sea lives the rosy conger, giant eel of snowy flesh,” the poet Pablo Neruda wrote in Oda al Caldillo de Congrio. “And in Chilean stewpots, along the coast, was born the chowder, pregnant and succulent, a boon to man.” Neruda concludes his ode by saying that one who eats eel soup may know the taste of heaven.
Neruda (1904–1973) was a renowned gourmand: He wrote tributes to lemons, tomatoes, artichokes, and corn. But for Neruda, it was caldillo de congrio that captured the essence of his country. The soup is made with fish broth, onions, garlic, cream, tomatoes, potatoes, and the most important ingredient: the congrio rosado (or pink conger, a snaky fish with speckled rosy skin and white flesh). Neruda found the wedding of flavors from land and sea divine.
Because Chile is a slender leg of land that runs along the Pacific Ocean, most communities have easy access to fresh seafood. Neruda may well have bought conger at the fish market in the city of Valparaíso, where he owned a home called La Sebastiana, now a museum.
Today, mornings at the market are frenetic, as fishermen drag their boats in on wheels and sell the fresh catch right out of their vessels. When I visited, Franco Cifuentes—the executive chef at Viña Indómita, a winery in the nearby Casablanca Valley—took me there to buy conger. “I use the same flavors Neruda mentioned in the poem,” said Cifuentes. “The preparation may be different, but the result is very similar.”
At the market, Cifuentes coached me to look for an eel with clear eyes, a firm body, and a bright pink hue behind the gills. After inspecting several candidates, we settled on one angler’s biggest catch of the day. It was a congrio rosado, the breed glorified in Neruda’s poem, weighing close to 20 pounds.
Cifuentes treated the fish with the respect it deserved, serving it in a caldillo de congrio with a new twist. He added a sprinkle of merkén, a seasoning used by the indigenous Mapuche people. The blend of smoked chili flakes, salt, cumin, and coriander brought a spicy, smoky dimension to the broth.
Neruda probably never heard of merkén; most Chileans weren’t familiar with it before it began appearing in specialty food shops in the past decade or so. But the poet’s love of food and country suggests that he would have enjoyed this extra kick to his caldillo de congrio. Maybe he would have revised his ode and added a stanza for the spice. A
WHERE TO SAMPLE CALDILLO DE CONGRIO
In addition to eel chowder, this neighborhood café in Santiago serves Chilean staples such as empanadas and pastel de choclo. Dardignac 098, Recoleta, Santiago, 56/2-777-0116, galindo.cl.
As you enjoy your caldillo and one of the signature pisco sours (try one with merkén), take in the spectacular views of the Valparaíso harbor from the second story of a sleek wood-and-glass restaurant. Condor 35, Valparaíso, 56/32-223-8836, odapacifico.cl.
Executive chef Franco Cifuentes puts his spin on the traditional chowder at a winery outside Valparaíso. Km 64, Ruta 68, Valle de Casablanca, 56/32-215-3900, indomita.cl.