“They say when you eat piure, you’ll last all night long,” a Chilean fisherman tells me with a huge grin as he reaches into a cooler and pulls out a sea creature that looks like a prop from a low budget sci-fi horror film. I’m walking through La Caleta, the artisanal fishing stands in Ñam Santiago, one of Chile’s largest and most important food festivals promoting Chilean cuisine and culture. The fisherman then opens a jar of bright orange paté, dips a spoon inside, and gives me a taste: it’s as if sea urchins, oysters, and kelp jumped into a blender, fermented for a year, and formed the ultimate representation of the ocean in one concentrated bite.
Piure, or pyura chilensis, which is also known as a sea squirt, or “poor man’s Viagra,” might look like an alien hiding inside a living rock, but it is one of Chile’s oldest and most controversial delicacies. The sac-like tunicate lives in dense colonies on the Chilean and Peruvian coast, and breaths, feeds, and expels waste through siphon suctions. The marine filter feeder appears to have a rock-like exterior, but when cut open, it resembles the inside locule of a juicy tomato, dripping translucent blood. According to Science Alert, these are the only organisms in the animal kingdom to contain high levels of vanadium metal in their blood plasma, which might explain its strong iodine flavor. What’s even more peculiar, is the piure can literally fuck itself. In 2005, Chilean biologists discovered that the piure doesn’t need a partner to reproduce. Instead, this digonic hermaphrodite (born with both male and female gonads) has “selfing” capabilities: If no partner is found, it releases a cloud of egg and sperm into the water, and poof, external tadpole larvae develop.
“This is one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever seen in my life. Frightening, absolutely frightening,” Andrew Zimmern explains to the camera on an episode of Bizarre Foods, calling the piure one of the most bizarre foods he has ever eaten. “I will never forget this as long as I live,” he says. But piure isn’t known for its peculiar makeup and strange appearance; instead, it has strong roots in Chile’s food history, a century-old local delicacy that is now finding its way back into some of the country’s top restaurants.
The piure can literally fuck itself. This digonic hermaphrodite has “selfing” capabilities: If no partner is found, it releases a cloud of egg and sperm into the water, and poof, external tadpole larvae develop.
“Half of Chileans love piure, and the other half just hate the poor guy,” chef Rodolfo Guzmán of the acclaimed restaurant Boragó explains. Guzmán began studying piure in 2012 and noticed that when the fish is broken down, the flavor can be subtle and versatile. “You know the Romans made a garum with the guts of anchovies, which is one of the most ancient sauces in the world,” Guzmán tells me. “So, we did the same thing, but with a piure garum, and the result was incredible.” The team at Boragó pulled off the piure skin, cleaned it, and created a dish for the tasting menu: a bon-bon of piure skin, stuffed with a purée of mandarin zest and hazelnut butter.
Chef and seafood purveyor Gabriel Layera connects local fisherman with Chile’s top restaurants, and explains that piure are collected by fisherman and divers who then slice the peña (rock) open with a handsaw, and use their fingers to pull out the meat, called tetas, or udders. “Piure is a delicacy in Chile, and it has been for many, many years,” he notes. Piure, or P. Chilensis traces back to 1782, when it was recorded in a book by historian Juan Ignacio Molina as a primary form of sustenance in Chiloe, an island off of the mainland in Southern Chile.
Layera says it’s hard to describe what piure tastes like. But to him, it’s like biting into a “fabulous fleshy grilled tomato with salt”, except with pure sweet sea flavor. “You notice the particular flavor immediately. When it’s high quality, it’s bright orange and firm—it’s like biting into seawater with intense seafood notes—it’s acidic, salty, sweet, and incredibly fresh.”
Piure is traditionally served raw, topped with freshly squeezed lemon. It can also be combined with a salsa verde of chopped onion, cilantro, green onion, salt, oil, and lemon juice. In the south of Chile, it’s common to find dried and smoked piure links, which hang in the markets and used in soups and stews. “My grandmother would make a pino,” Layera tells me, explaining that she would make a bolognesa of piure mixing together a Chilean sofrito of onions, tomatoes, garlic, oregano and red chilies, and sauté it with fresh or smoked and salted piure. Tallarines (pasta) con piure is another popular dish, along with fried piure empanadas. Piure is often added to broths to give it a smokey and briny ocean flavor. At La Calma, Leyra’s recently opened restaurant in Santiago, he serves chopped piure with pebre (Chilean salsa), cochayuyo (kelp), and fresh clam juice on top of a raw clam. He also makes ceviche that combines fish with piure. “I love when people come to the restaurant and order a plate of piure, it’s like we are on the same wavelength.”
Gustavo Moreno, chef and creator of Raíces Lab, an investigative laboratory that solely uses ingredients from the Chilean coast, thinks that piure is the most important product from the sea. “It gives us identity,” he says. “We want to potentiate its consumption.” Moreno has piure on his tasting menu in various preparations, like soaked in orange juice for 12 hours before being dredged in corn flour and deep fried, giving it a “really crunchy texture, like eating sweetbreads full of ocean flavor.” Raíces is also known for their piure bottarga. Here, the piure is cured in salt for 30 days at 5°C, then air dried for another month, dehydrated, and finely ground. “The result is incredible!” Moreno tells me. “It’s like a piure salt, with such an intense flavor!” Moreno uses it with a clam cream and sea garlic flowers, and also as a condiment with salads, meats, and fish. “It’s so versatile, we can add it to anything to get a true sea flavor.”
Back at La Caleta, Carola Silva, the director of Ñam Chile, explains how the festival and local chefs must continue to cook and promote national delicacies like piure, otherwise food traditions might be lost. “Chile is made entirely up of coastline, but there’s a lot about the sea Chileans don’t know. And since we do not know, we don’t consume.” Silva says. “The only way to maintain our heritage is to support the artisan fishing community, celebrate our marine life, and eat from the sea.” Layera agrees and thinks it could be a generational thing. Even though the country’s innovative chefs use piure, many younger Chileans won’t consume it. “A lot of young people don’t like piure, maybe they had a bad experience. If it’s not fresh, the piure can be really awful, with an offensive smell that pricks the tongue. But I love it,” he confesses. “Some people eat cow’s brain; here in Chile, we eat piure.”