When the Spanish arrived in South America, they had to deal with two peoples with very strong characters: the Incas, whose political and cultural domain extended from Peru to north-east Argentina, and the Guaranì. The territory of the latter covered the wild region of the famous Iguaçu waterfalls in north-eastern Argentina. As far as food was concerned, the Inca civilization typically survived on maize and peppers, while the Guaranì used cassava and maize. Of course, neither of these two civilizations knew anything about Christianity.
The celebration of Christmas was introduced in America by the Spanish missionaries who converted the native populations, often by force. The feast of the Nativity was therefore brought in from a foreign culture and incorporated (and, as time passed, accepted) by the local inhabitants who integrated the external appearances of Christianity, in particular, into their own religious beliefs: the worship of saints, the pageantry of ceremonies, the more celebrated miracles, the nativity scene, processions. Their culinary traditions did not alter greatly, however. At Christmas the Indios continued to eat the same food as they ate on ordinary days, while the Spanish stuck to their traditional dishes, mixing them with fresh fruit from the new land.
This is how the situation remained from the sixteenth century until halfway through the nineteenth, when huge numbers of immigrants began to arrive from Europe, and a new form of cuisine was born which combined recipes from different sources – and this still forms the basis of Argentina cuisine today. A typical Argentine menu consists of various components with a prevalence of Italian recipes, followed by Spanish (which make great use of meat, especially beef) then French, German and English dishes, along with other dishes transplanted from the pre-colonial regional tradition, especially in the north-east and some of the central area of the country, and, finally, various other contributions from Jewish, Arab, Scandinavian, North American and Brazilian tradition. In this highly-colored mosaic, Italian and Spanish tradition particularly stand out, along with meat.
There is no lack of typical criolla (creole) recipes, with which the Argentines identify: asado (barbecued meat), empanadas (thin pastry parcels containing minced meat, olives, onions and boiled eggs, which are fried or baked in the oven), locro (pork and beef stew with maize), humitas (beef and sweetcorn pie), tamales (little polentas with meat and vegetables, made into parcels in maize leaves, and steamed) which are found in many versions from Argentina up to Mexico, puchero (mixed boiled meat) and many sweets, first and foremost dulche de leche (a sweet milk sauce) and alfajores (biscuits filled with dulce de leche) and many other traditional recipes which, unfortunately, are tending to die out.
Typical Christmas dishes are not those mentioned above, but include Spanish turrones (nougat), in various forms, and Italian-style panes dulces, following the tradition of Milanese panettone or Genovese pan dolce. The savory dishes reflect regional or family traditions. Since Christmas in Argentina occurs in summer, cold dishes are usually preferred and very few hot dishes are used to vary the Christmas Eve dinner or Christmas lunch: for this meal, the meat left over from the previous evening’s hot dinner (turkey, chicken, lamb, pork, goat or beef) is usually eaten cold.
The choice of meat for the Christmas table is to some extent linked to geographical region: kid is often eaten in the central-eastern and north-western areas; pork is typically served in the eastern provinces, lamb in the south and beef in the pampas; chicken is found everywhere and turkey is mainly used in the large cities which have adopted North American customs. Desserts may vary too, from classic Hispanic-colonial north-eastern dishes to a more common combination of ice creams with fruit salad, ideal for the season.
In the city and province of Buenos Aires, which are two separate political entities despite having the same name, starters usually include cold tomatoes stuffed with tuna, stuffed hard-boiled eggs, ham, peppers with mayonnaise and veal with tuna sauce. This last dish owes its origins to the first wave of Italian immigrants consisting mainly of Piedmontese, followed by Lombards and Genoese, who also contributed cima genovese (stuffed breast of veal) and meat-filled ravioli, although it is now more usual to find ravioli with spinach and ricotta filling.
Festive meals are usually accompanied by various drinks, not only white or red wine. Cider and sparkling wine (champaña) are both popular and also clericó, a combination of fruit, sparkling or non-sparkling wine, sugar and ice. If you want to try it, peel and chop two peaches, four apricots, and four plums. Put the fruit in a jug, cover with red or white wine and add sugar to taste. It is best to leave the mixture to marinate in the refrigerator for an hour or so before serving; two or three pieces of fruit should fall into the glass when pouring the drink (the ice only serves the purpose of keeping the drink cool). If sparkling wine is used, it should be sweet or semi-sweet and no sugar should be added.
The meal ends with pan dulce, turrone and dried fruit with several bottles of champaña.
Here we present a recipe for huevos relleno, stuffed eggs, by the great Argentine chef Dolli Irigoyen, who was born in the rural area of the province of Buenos Aires and is very familiar with the region’s traditions.
Huevos rellenos (Stuffed eggs)
1 clove garlic
4 slices prosciutto
2 spoons mayonnaise
1 red grilled pepper
1 spoonful of stoned black olives
salt, pepper, olive oil
Boil the eggs for eight minutes in salted water. When they are cool, shell, cut them in half, and remove the yolk. Soften the garlic in olive oil and add the tomato, skinned, de-seeded and chopped. Cook for a few minutes and season with salt and pepper. Crush the yolks with the tomato, mayonnaise and finely chopped ham, to obtain a purée. Fill the eggs and decorate with strips of peeled grilled peppers and olives.
Fernando Vidal Buzzi is an Argentine f&w writer and journalist. He has written a number of books on the influence of European immigration on Argentine eating habits and wine, and since 1992 has edited an annual critical guide to restaurants in Buenos Aires.
Photo: a typical Argentine asado