Gourmet Destinations - Argentina
Wander the streets of Buenos Aires and it won’t take long to hit you; the mysterious, alluring aroma of grilled meat wafting from a restaurant door, or, just as likely, somebody’s backyard. Food in Argentina is a big deal. It’s as deeply entrenched in the culture as tango or ‘the beautiful game’ and when it comes to cooking, the term fast food is something of an oxymoron.
Much of the cuisine revolves around meat. Mention the word ‘vegan’ and most people will assume you’re talking about Dr Spock. Argentines are the world’s second largest consumers of beef; each person chows down around 58 kilograms a year and more than half the restaurants in the country are parrillas, named after the grill the meat is cooked over.
None of this is to suggest it’s as simple as slapping a quick steak on the barbecue while rustling up a salad. Anything but. In Argentina, the cooking of meat is seen as an art form and is treated with appropriate reverence. “It’s about taking your time,” says Elvis Abrahanowicz, co-founder of Sydney’s acclaimed Argentine restaurant, Porteno. “It’s all to do with the fire, getting the embers just right and warming them up slowly. There’s hardly any heat in it.
“If you’re cooking a whole animal, you always have a fire on the side rather then smashing it full of coals. You really only cook it on one side. It gets the heat into the bones then the bones get hot so it’s almost cooking from the inside out.”
Argentine cuisine has heavy Mediterranean influences, thanks largely to Spanish colonisation in the 16th Century, as well as a massive influx of Italian immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If beefsteak is the staple, it’s almost always accompanied with chimichuri sauce, a simple but fiendishly delicious combination of garlic, onion, olive oil, oregano, red wine vinegar and lime juice.
And then there’s chorizo, though as Carole Poole, a former Argentine native now living in Australia, explains, “It’s sacrilege to call a chorizo a ‘sausage’, as it is so much more; nothing I’ve tasted anywhere else in the world comes near to the flavour of a good chorizo.” Cooked on an asado, the Spanish term for barbecue, chorizo is often served simply in a crispy bread roll and regarded as a meal in itself. Meat is often seasoned minimally, using mainly salt and pepper. Of greater importance is the way in which it’s cooked, as well as the cuts chosen.
“Apart from the chorizos, and equally important, are the different cuts of meat that comprise the ‘asado’”, explains Carole. “Favourites are skirt steak, f lank steak, sweet breads, black pudding, and even small intestine, always garnished for extra flavour while cooking with chimichurri.” The usual accompaniments for an asado are fresh crisp bread, green salad and frequently, potato salad. Creme caramel or flan is the dessert of choice, often drizzled with dulce de leche sauce, a deliriously delicious sweetened milk confection.
Aside from the cooking itself, part of the importance of food culturally in Argentina stems from a desire for friends and family to convene and spend quality time together. “It’s everything,” says Elvis. “I think because of the mix of cultures, everyone wants to bring it all together and share it, it’s created its own cuisine, one that people are super passionate about.
“If we had an asado at my house, it’d be an all day affair, a big eating fest! Everyone gets up early. The girls would get making fresh pasta and the guys would get the fire going, and my dad and uncles would cook all day.”
None of this is to suggest that anything overly elaborate or pretentious would accompany the cooking process. If anything, Elvis’ father, Adan, who works alongside his son in the kitchen at Porteno, is known to actively eschew expensive gear in favour of more old-school methods. “My old man is the MacGyver of making barbecues,” jokes Elvis. “He’ll make one out of anything, a few bricks, some wire mesh. We still cook like that.”
The point was reinforced after Adan bagged himself a $7000 state-of-the art barbecue after winning a cooking competition a couple of years back. Apparently Adan lit it up once, after which it languished in the garage gathering dust, never to be used again. Perhaps it’s a fitting metaphor for Argentine food, where simplicity is key and less is so often more.