Like most Latin American countries, Argentina’s cuisine has been shaped by the confluence of native traditions and ingredients, as well as influences from immigrants coming from all over the world, particularly the Mediterranean. As compared to other South American countries, however, Argentinian cuisine and culture have been particularly shaped by Italian influences, and consequently a quick look at any Argentinian restaurant’s menu will yield an abundance of pizza and pasta. Even the Argentinian speech sounds a bit like Spanish spoken with an Italian accent. I visited the capital of Argentina, Buenos Aires, very briefly a few years ago, and was surprised by how very European it was. The temperate weather, classic European architecture, modern conservative dress sense, and tall, white citizens could have easily been plucked from the streets of Milan, Berlin or Paris. Certainly, it doesn’t embody the bright, noisy, colourful and chaotic stereotype of Southern America that might spring to mind if you have never visited. When I was there, I was in two minds about the food. On the first day, we ordered a paradilla (a mixed grill barbecue with salad, sauces and chips brought still flaming to the table), and it was obviously wonderful and delicious – just the thing to recover from a 20 hour international flight. However, I subsequently found the lack of diversity a bit tiring – once I got sick of enormous slabs of meat, pasta and pizza, there wasn’t much else to try! Also in most places, when you order a steak, that’s what they bring you. Steak. Alone. On a plate. I think the Argentinians could learn a thing or two from their many northern neighbours, who wouldn’t dream of presenting a cut of meat without several different accompaniments. After all, I hold the firm belief that accompaniments are almost always the best part of the meal, so their neglect is tantamount to heresy in my book. However, the barbecue/meat tradition in Argentina is undeniably wonderful, as are the many other regional and/or fusion-influenced specialities, so I admit that my first impressions may have been driven by my poor choice of tourist-catering restaurants, as well as my complete ignorance of all other parts of Argentina outside of the capital. A convincing reason to go back, no? Argentina has also more than made up for that experience by providing me with my daily addiction of the last few years: mate. Mate (pronounced mah-teh) is a strongly caffeinated tea made from the yerba mate plant, traditionally drunk from a hollowed out gourd through a hollow metal straw that filters the tea leaves. Having never warmed to coffee, I make a large cup of this tea every morning and refill it with hot water throughout the day, regularly feeling thankful to the clever South American inventors of this preparation for getting me through every day.
Asado, salsa criolla and chimichurri
Asado or paradilla is the technique or event of having a barbecue, usually cooked on an outdoor grill over flame or hot coals. This concept is hugely popular in Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay, but is perhaps most synonymous with Argentina. The event is generally not very welcoming to vegetarians and vegans, with the major focus centering around meat, particularly cuts of beef, offal and embutidos (types of sausages), usually simply prepared without a marinade, just some salt. I included a whole-barbecued eye fillet, beef ribs, chorizo sausage, morcilla (blood sausage) and chicken pieces in my asado. This would traditionally be joined by a few token barbecued vegetables (although I included quite a lot for some vegetarian guests), barbecued provolone cheese, salads, bread, and plentiful red wine. The sauces I prepared were chimichurri, made with garlic, oil, vinegar, and finely food processed herbs such as parsley and coriander, and salsa criolla, which is a chunky mix of tomatoes, onion and capsicum. The history of beef in Argentina is a long one, and can be attributed to the country’s current status as second-highest consumers of beef in the world. It begins with the legend of Juan de Salazar y Espinoza and the Goes brothers in 1556, who first introduced cattle into the “pampa” (Argentinian grazing plains), which they sourced from Brazil in the form of one bull and seven cows. Those cows then reproduced prolifically and produced a huge population of wild cows inhabiting the flat grassy expanses of Argentina. This prompted the tradition of Argentinian “gauchos” (cowboys), who made a living by herding/hunting these wild cows, predominantly to skin and sell the leather, which was a hugely profitable venture of the time. However, this lifestyle inevitably led to a heavily meat-based diet of the gauchos, cooked in a rustic, outdoor manner. And so, the asado was born! By the 18th century, there was an estimated 40 million wild cows in Argentina. By the 19th century, Charles Darwin himself spent a whole year sleeping under the stars in Argentina following this lifestyle, and found it so agreeable that he wrote a letter to his sister pronouncing himself a gaucho, adoring the fresh air, meat and mate dearly. The original asados involved making a large bonfire in the ground, then propping up stakes around it, on which various whole animals (such as goat) or cuts of meat were crucified/threaded and slow cooked by the radiant heat. This tradition is still upheld in some parts of Argentina, and one of the most famous Argentinian chefs, Francis Mallman, is legendary for cooking in this style. After spending much of his life being classically trained in the subtle delicacies of French culinary arts, Mallman now lives on an island in the far south of Argentina, in Patagonia, where he has returned to his Argentinian roots of extremely rustic, outdoor gaucho-style open fire cooking. Prospective disciples of his practice, which is nearing a cult-like status, often come to stay with him to learn the ways of the fire.
Locro is a dense and hearty stew that originates from the Andes mountain range, where the snowy peaks and bleak winds call for piping hot stodgy meals (I know from experience!). Locro is therefore eaten in most countries that the Andes pass through, including Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. However, it is perhaps most famous, and has become a national dish, in Argentina. Like most traditionally home-cooked meals, the recipe is flexible, but almost always involves stewing together dried large corn kernels, meat (could be beef, chorizo, ham etc., I used the latter two), onion, pumpkin, potato, and sometimes fresh corn kernels, when they can be sourced. The mixture is simmered with water for hours until the root vegetables have formed a thick mush and all the flavours have wonderfully combined into the taste of pure cosiness. This list of predominantly indigenous ingredients makes it likely that locro originated from the people of the Incan empire, and indeed it’s called “ruqru” in the native Quechua language. These days, locro is most commonly associated with May 25 in Argentina, which is the anniversary of the May Revolution against the Spaniards, and is usually marked by citizens chowing down on a big bowl of locro to symbolise their native ingredients and traditions. However, I suspect that this tradition is also triggered by the first whispers of winter blowing into the country, as the dish is thought to be rich in vitamins and nutrients, perfect to ward off illnesses. Locro was also served at the “wedding of the century” in 2001 between the only Chilean Miss Universe winner (1987), Cecilia Bolocco, and former long-standing president of Argentina Carlos Menem. These two figures were the equivalent of royalty in their respective countries, so their union was quite the spectacular event, inviting over 6000 guests to a sport stadium. Locro was an efficient way to feed all of these attendees, perhaps symbolising the Andes that both divide and unite the two countries.
The word “matambre” can actually refer to a wide thin cut of beef, like a flank steak, taken from on top of the ribs. However, this cut is almost never grilled by itself, and one of the most popular recipes using it is “matambre arollado” (rolled matambre) or “matambre relleno” (filled matambre), which have come to be shortened to just “matambre”, referring to the entire preparation. This is convenient, because matambre is a portmanteau word of the Spanish “matar” (to kill) and “hambre” (hunger), and this meal is definitely a hunger killer! To prepare the dish, a large cut of flank steak is flattened out into a large thin sheet, and then hard-boiled eggs, vegetables (such as olives, carrot, spinach and capsicum) and herbs are laid out in rows across the surface. The steak is then rolled up, secured with string, and barbecued or baked until cooked. Thin slices are cut from the matambre, each revealing a beautiful pinwheel of meat peppered with the colourful filling. This preparation was easier than I expected, and turned out prettier than I imagined, so I highly recommend it for bringing along to a barbecue or preparing as an unusual roast dinner. It could also be a good way of sneaking some extra vegetables into kids/adults/yourself in a delicious way?
Carbonada criolla is a chunky soup, made by slow cooking meat (usually beef), with vegetables such as corn, capsicum, assorted root vegetables, and sometimes fruits like peaches, all generously flavoured with onion, garlic, paprika, oregano and parsley. The “carbon” part of carbonada is thought to refer to cooking the pot over an open fire until the logs are turned to charcoal. That aspect of the name is thought to derive from carbonnade flamande, which eagle-eyed readers among you may recognise I cooked an eternity ago for Belgian week. The “criolla” element of the name comes from “criollos”, meaning those of Spanish descent born in the colonies. The dish is therefore similar in spirit to the dark beer-based meat and vegetable stew from Belgium, but with some native South American twists, such as the inclusion of local corn, potatoes and sweet potatoes.