Eating in Argentina

22 Aug 2007

In a country of mega cereal harvests that is one of the planet’s top five food producers and exporters, the kingdom of red meat from animals grazing peacefully in pastures of fresh grass, the diet of the population is not all that varied. Nor does it have the ‘identity’ you find in Mexico or and Peru.

Despite the scare of the economic crisis, which has altered models of consumption, depriving millions of people of the chance to nourish themselves with quality foods, Argentine cuisine continues to very flavorful. It preserves a typicality that lingers in the memories of foreign visitors and nostalgic natives worship when they move abroad. First there is that most traditional of dishes, asado, which everyone has an opinion about; its preparation is an experimental ritual, almost a pretext for friendship. Then there is the creamy dulce de leche, of uncertain origins, which all Argentines regard as a national specialty. Both seem to exorcise the taste buds and the spirit.

The lack of a national cookbook, an acknowledged compendium of recipes capable of persuading foreigners to attempt an imitation, detracts nothing from the merits of the tasty foods eaten in Argentina, despite the sparing use of spices, vegetables and dried fruit.
Though many food experts claim that Argentine cooking is simply boring and monotonous, if we look at the map of this vast country’s regional gastronomy, we find a number of typical, even original dishes based on an extraordinary array of knowledge and customs.

Despite recurring economic crises, these foods are by no means being lost and continue to find their place on tables every day. To really understand eating habits in each region would involve making a gastronomic journey through 18 different ecosystems, from dense forests to deserts to breathtakingly boundless plains (which, if they were to be exploited for intensive agriculture, would soon become the market garden of South America). We should also remember that this is a land of immigrants who, along with their memories, also brought a gastronomic heritage which they spread throughout the areas where they settled, from the region of the saltpeter caves in the north to the mysterious waters of the Strait of Magellan, a place where the world seems to begin — or end.

In some of the wealthier regions of this land of many landscapes, newly arrived settlers (especially the Europeans who emigrated here at the start of the 20th century) mixed their culinary habits with the simple food customs of earlier pioneers and descendents of the indigenous peoples The new immigrants that settled in the Andes area thus became acquainted with all the various kinds of maize, quinoa, yacón and local potatoes, as well as the ancient ancestral cooking techniques of the Mapuche Indians. In many cases, even a brief encounter between diverse cultures was enough to relegate the recipes of the first inhabitants of these plains and mountains — natives who had attracted the attention of Charles Darwin, Amado Bonpland and Gerald Durrell, bold travelers in search of unknown paradises — to oblivion.

Their traditional recipes are being salvaged today partly thanks to the growing interest Argentines are showing in discovering new flavors, enhancing their identity and exalting the typicality of products like goat’s cheese, Rio de la Plata the tomatoes, Costa de Berisso wines, Patagonian lamb, freshwater fish, Tandil cured meats, Quilino kid, the humitas (fresh corn and onion wrapped in corn husks) of the north and Hesperidina, a liqueur prepared with bitter orange rinds steeped in alcohol flavored with floral and herbal essences.

So what are Argentines eating in the third millennium? There is no easy answer. The population has had to cope with dramatic economic crises that have plunged many into poverty, even destitution. What is missing is money and this obviously has serious repercussions on the possibility of buying food. Statistics show that nearly 10 million people live below the poverty line. Sergio Britos of CESNI (Centro de Estudios Sobre Nutrición Infantil – Study Center for Children’s Nutrition) comments that people’s eating habits have also changed as a result of limited job opportunities. Though money had been scarce before, meat had always been considered the staple food.

Now, however, this sector of society is eating an increased number of carbohydrates: pasta, bread, polenta, rice served with fats and sauces. The usual menu consists of very small portions of vegetables, particularly potato (the spunta, a forage variety is produced on a large scale), small quantities of milk and non-brand industrial foods filled with artificial additives and hydrogenated oils, which simplify the work of housewives. The nation’s legendary beef is a rarity on the tables of these marginalized members of society. When it does appear, the cuts are of second-rate quality: they also tend to come from the black market, and are hence not submitted to health inspection.

According to Britos, the rising poverty among large segments of society is also causing more obesity among children and adults. This means it is even less likely that vegetables will become a part of the daily diet, despite the boom in private and municipal organic gardens, which the INTA (Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria – National Institute of Farming Technology) has been promoting for more than a decade.

In terms of eating habits, there is a great disparity between people who can afford to buy food and those who cannot. This means that specific consumption models are being established for the different social classes. According to the anthropologist Patricia Aguirre, each social level works out a different survival strategy. The scientist explains how the poor, who usually have more robust builds, prefer to sit down together to foods like carbohydrates, which fill them up and sate the palate.

‘The objective of the middle classes,’ comments Aguirre, ‘is to have great bodies. They’re always dieting … giving up one diet to have a go at another, then going back to the first. They opt for palatable foods and eat dishes like meat and potato pie at home with the family. Wealthier people look after their health more. They eat light/diet foods and at their tables each diner might well eat a different dish. One of the children might be macrobiotic, the other a vegetarian, and maybe the father is on a special diet to control his cholesterol. In this case, the daily diet puts off the pleasure of the moment in the interest of future health.’

Together with the people who the system has only recently marginalized, the poor tend to share their food and woes. They are all frequent visitors to the municipal cafeterias mushrooming in community centers on the outskirts of towns, in schools and at associations to ease the grip of hunger — here, in this land of abundance. Meanwhile, people with purchasing power are converting to food globalization, albeit without giving up their milanesas (breaded veal cutlets) in all their traditional offshoots, bife de chorizo (strip steak), French fries, pasta, empanadas (meat pasties), mollejas (sweetbreads), pizzas, the flan with dulce de leche and cream, vigilante (a dessert of cheese and quince jam), the coffee and milk served with medialuna biscuits, or the churros y chocolate, a classic combination for school celebrations that take place on patriotic holidays.

Young and middle-aged people, in particular, are discovering sushi and other Japanese dishes. They are becoming familiar with the various Andean potatoes and learning to appreciate the flavor of amaranth and to eat vegetables other than the classic lettuce, tomato, carrot, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, peppers, beets and squash. At the start of the new century, the world has become a place for discovering new delicacies.

Today everyone is talking about sweet sun-dried tomatoes, mangoes, chirimoyas (Anona cherimolia), persimmons, papayas, limes and all sorts of unusual berries. Whether out of fashion or just plain curiosity, people are even daring to taste venison, pheasant, llama, duck and pork, all meats that have regained their former prestige because they are lean and low in calories. Cooked in a thousand different ways or smoked, these meats are starting to appear on the tables of our new ‘global citizens’, who are also curious to try unusual seasonings such as balsamic vinegar, imported soy sauces, rice vinegars and ginger, curry, cardamom or coriander preserves.

Argentines would never dream of giving up their coffee and milk or their medialunas and churros for breakfast, but they are slowly beginning to drink herbal infusions and green and flavored teas, the more exotic the better. Having food delivered at home is very popular in big cities like Buenos Aires, where the preference is for ready-to serve dishes such as mushroom risotto, Chinese vegetables sautéed with bamboo shoots and burdock, various types of pizza and even ceviche. Since they make life easier, pre-cooked dishes are also being used, along with ‘industrial’ foods like poultry, frozen foods and fruit juices.

Consumers on the highest rungs of the social ladder show a growing predilection for natural foods. Though 90 percent of local organic production is exported, a small group of buyers is beginning to request organically grown vegetables and to demand wholemeal products, particularly bread and other baked goods. Since Argentines are bolder and less conservative than they used top be, the common meal pattern has changed. Globalization has brought Argentina closer to the recipes and eating habits of many foreign countries and created ‘gastronomic circuits. In Buenos Aires, for example, we find the Las Cañitas district in the barrio of Belgrano; downtown Puerto Madero; Dardo Roche in the elegant San Isidro quarter; and Palermo Viejo, the area of the city that has become a microcenter of design and film production.

These small culinary centers offer a world map of gastronomic diversity that even includes a few full organic restaurants, such as Bio y Demetria. Thanks to hefty financial invest, more and more of these restaurants are springing up alongside old faithfuls such as Tomo I , owned by the Cócaro sisters, and Silvia Morizono’s Morizono.

Older cooks on the ‘gourmet’ circuit are being buried by an avalanche of chefs inspired by the traditions of the Greats — Gatos Dumas, Ramiro Rodriguez Pardo, Alicia Berger, Peloncha Perret, Francis Mallmann, Marín Carrera, Dolli Irigoyen. In the meantime, cooking schools abound, and more and more young people are deciding to study cooking.

Argentine food is the product of a multiplicity of worlds. However, despite changes aimed at placing the palate in harmony with the cosmos, despite the boom in junk and industrialized food, which relieve the housewife’s fatigue, despite the lack of resources due to unemployment and the rising cost of food, which weighs heavily on broad sectors of society, very few can resist the magnetic taste of asado, a spoonful of dulce de leche or a cup of mate, a triad that holds a consolidated place in the soul of the nation.

Maria Teresa Morresi, Argentina, is a journalist who contributes to newspapers and magazines on ecology, organic agriculture, social enterprises and NGOs.

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

First published in Slow 54

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