Eating Argentina

Argentines LOVE their dulce de leche!

When we first arrived in Buenos Aires, punch-drunk after a 24-hour flight (with layovers) from Bógota, we went straight out for dinner following our hostel check-in. The concierge/owner had recommended a place nearby called Bar Cao and said it was typical Porteño food (the people of Bs. As. are called Porteños).

We ordered from their Picadas menu, which was similar to a charcuterie menu: pieces of meat, pâté, goat cheese, pickles, etc. with some bread. We washed it all down with a draft dark beer for Craig and a draft cider for me. Perhaps it was the cider, or the deliciousness of the food, which resembled nothing we had found so far in South America (i.e. nothing fried, no starter soup, cheese that tasted like cheese, excellent alcoholic beverages), but I avowed there and then that Argentina had the best food by far.

Not a great photo of picadas, since I was probably tipsy already on food and cider. Goat cheese, escabeche (marinated chicken in vinegar with onion–one of our favorites), cherry tomatoes, pate with gherkins, artichokes, and cheesy bread with anchovy.

I haven’t been wrong in this assumption, especially in Bs. As. where the food has been much more international and less indigenous (which makes sense as Argentina’s indigenous population is minimal; more on that in a later post). And don’t forget, of course, the grass-fed, free-range cows that supply the best steaks I’ve ever eaten in my life.

Grilled steak and provolone cheese at La Cabrera, a restaurant in Palermo. They have a daily happy hour from 7-8pm where everything is half-off! Yummmm. Best steak I’ve ever had.

In fact, Argentine cuisine is heavy on the meat and dairy, light on most everything else. And because of their Italian influence, the food heavily favors pizzas and pastas (sounds good as long as you don’t mind your pizza slathered with more mozzarella than you can possibly eat and not sustain coronary artery disease as a result… an Italian girl that we met just shook her head in disgust when we mentioned the pizza).

The pastries facturas are also quite tasty. For our two week sojourn in Bs. As., our hostel provided fresh media lunas for breakfast: delicious, chewy croissants brushed with a sugary, sticky coating. They look like regular croissants but don’t have that flaky texture–just pure, buttery softness, not unlike eating King’s Hawaiian Sweet Bread. Since then, the media lunas have varied in quality; some dry and hard, others flaky and too salty; but the golden pinnacle of media lunas is out there and you just have to find it.

Craig holding a mangled factura called, confusingly enough, a tortilla. They were hard, dry, flaky, and fairly disgusting. We hated it when we had to put up with them at continental breakfasts.

Now let’s talk about alfajors. We encountered these when we first arrived in South America, in both Chile and Argentina (the latter are much better–don’t bother with those strangely shaped Chilean ones). The traditional alfajor consists of two cookies slapped around a dulce de leche filling, perhaps rolled in some coconut or dipped in chocolate. I’m not a fan of dulce de leche, which is too sweet and tastes very caramel-y, so luckily there are about a million variations of the alfajor: fruit, chocolate, or cream filling; covered in glaze, meringue, white chocolate, etc.; hard or soft cookies (even Oreo-brand makes an alfajor!). The possibilities are endless, but the best alfajor I’ve ever had remains the fruit-filled, glazed ones we found in Villa General Belgrano. I’ll have to try and whip up a substitute for it when we get home–there are some foods you just can’t live without once you’ve tried them.

The Oreo alfajor–probably my favorite. I’m such an American.

Droooooooooooool.

As we moved north, the indigenous population increased. The food in the Salta and Jujuy region have been more influenced by ancient tribal cuisine as opposed to Italian, and although I think in my deprived state I prefer the European stuff, I can’t deny that indigenous food has its merits. The empanadas here (as well as being baked versus fried, a big bonus) are filled with a variety of things; chicken with provolone, spinach, llama, samosa-like filling with a lemon tang (called Arabia, which necessitated a long discussion of whether this was racist or not). They are unfailingly good, as long as you eat them piping hot from the oven–Craig got some food poisoning from one that wasn’t reheated. They’re also often just called salteñas and some say that the salteña empanada is the best in all of Argentina.

A very Salta, indigenous dish, Locro. A type of stew with corn, yucca, beans, and meat.

Another food item called a tortilla–a giant omelette. Yum!

One last influence from the Italians that was extremely delicious, but also strained my wallet a bit, was the ice cream (I think in some places it was gelato, and there was a lot of sorbet, but mostly it was helado). It was difficult to go anywhere without a Grido, the Argentine equivalent of a Baskin Robbins. You could find one even in tiny towns such as Tilcara, where the population barely crested 5,000, you could always count on finding a Grido. But the pinnacle of ice cream had to be the Freddo, where two tiny scoops would run you about 44 peso, at least in expensive Bs. As, or about $6 USD by official exchange rates. We tried it once, and although it was probably the best ice cream in Argentina, I’m not sure if it’s really worth the price. Ice cream is always good, after all, and the curve is not really that skewed when it comes to quality.

All in all, Argentina was a great reprieve from the fried foods of Colombia, and the indigenous menús of Perú and Ecuador. If I were to choose a country whose cuisine I could see myself eating for the rest of my life, I’d probably choose Argentina. But I’d miss Asian food, which is still sadly lacking wherever we go. And hold half the mozzarella please!

Argentina’s idea of a salad–tomatoes with a single leaf of lettuce.

Matambre – meat wrapped around carrots, greens, and boiled eggs, and then itself boiled in milk and served cold.

Chuleta, any kind of grilled steak, and salade russe, which at times only means carrots, potatoes, and peas with a squirt of mayonnaise.

$1 for a carafe of wine (half a liter), served with ice. Perfect for a hot day.

 

The unappetizing sandwiches de miga, with bread cut from huge blocks into thin sheets. Not filling, and not super tasty either.

Yep, horse in a can.

A milanesa, a flat slab of meat breaded and fried, in sandwich form. This order was more enormous than usual, and had some extra goodies, like a fried egg and ham.

Choripan, sausage (chorizo) in bread (pan), with some chimichurri, a delicious garlic sauce that can be hot, and some light beer (what else in South America?) to help wash it all down.

Argentina is known for its wine, which can be had in large quantities for extremely low prices.

Last, but not least (at least in Craig’s mind), Fernet is King. A bitter, herbal liqueur, said to help digestion, it came in all sorts of forms, some of the cheaper brands scorned by Porteños. I can’t say I like its taste, but it does have an agreeable smell.

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