Saturday, December 13, 2008

At (Ridiculously) Long Last: The Food Post

Introduction

I've been promising this particular post since just after I arrived in Argentina nearly four months ago, and have actually been writing it that long as well. Sorry about the delay, but at least it's complete with all my food experiences and not just a few weeks' worth. Not surprisingly, it's ridiculously long.

To start, there aren’t many interesting or unusual ingredients here that are strictly Argentinean. They don't have much spicy food (indeed, even the tiniest spice sends people reeling here) and imported foods are incredibly expensive: a 6 oz jar of peanut butter costs the equivalent of $12 U.S. Suffice to say, the cuisine in Buenos Aires isn't what one might call adventuresome; that said, it's generally very good. Although I often yearn for the ethnic diversity of U.S. cities' eateries, I've been quite content eating my way through the city.

(A note on ethnic foods: it's not that they don't exist here. In fact, Buenos Aires has the best Chinese food of any South American country I've tried (including Chile, Bolivia, and Peru) and the sushi, though dominated by pink salmon, is always fresh and well-made. There is of course tons of Italian and also French, Spanish, and German food to be had, all of which are delicious. The most notable failure of South America in general is, sadly, with Mexican food: I have nothing but disappointment in that department. Otherwise, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Ethiopian and most other ethnic foods are almost completely absent. I have a lot of ethnic catching up to do once I arrive state-side!)

Savory

When I first arrived, I noticed that one thing Argentina has in common with Chile is the abundance of empanadas. The difference is that here they are smaller and come in a wider variety. At first I favored the Chilean version, but now I'm a die-hard Argentinean empanada over. My favorites are eggplant, spicy beef, cheesen and onion, and “vegetable” which always means spinach. There is a great place just two blocks from my apartment called La Americana that serves famous empanadas and pizzas, and I always get a spicy empanada and a piece of spinach pizza, which is topped with this amazingly creamy, bubbly cheese. One day my neighbor Fede made homemade empanadas for me and I almost died they were so amazing. He made them 'criolla' style with hunks of tender beef, peas, potatoes, and just the right amount of spiciness, all deep fried in a pot of oil.

Due to a high volume of Italian immigration in the not-so-distant past, the food here is influenced a lot by Italian culture. To that end, they have amazing pasta in Argentina. Fresh pasta is available in little stores on every corner, and every single menu - no matter what kind of restaurant - has at least one pasta dish, which will always be made in-house: store-bought pasta is like blasphemy here. Specifically good is the gnocchi. I have had a lot of mushy gnocchi in my life, which makes me ever hesitant to order it in a restaurant, but this is a country well reared in the art of potato pasta making. I've had gnocchi myriad times at distinct restaurants with varying prices, and all of them have been impressively cooked in creative sauces. My friend Kirsten and I joke about what we'll order when we go to lunch, since almost always at least one of us will order gnocchi and the other will eat off her plate.

Also thanks to the Italians there is a pizza place on every block. The pizza here is as famous as its pasta and tasty too, though they have an odd practice of putting whole green olives on top of every pizza, no matter the toppings. (Olives and hard-boiled eggs go in just about everything, including empanadas.) I know it's low-brow, but I have to admit I often crave a Papa John's pepperoni and pineapple pizza with garlic butter sauce. I eat pasta much more often than pizza, with one notable exception: there is a chain called Ugi's with a store a half block from my apartment. They only sell one thing: cheese pizzas, Italian-style. Hand-tossed dough, simple yet delicious tomato sauce, and fresh slices - not grated! - of parmesan cheese make up these irresistible pies. For 10 pesos (about $3) I get a "large" (aka a U.S. medium) pizza fresh out of the oven, which I will usually eat over the course of two days. They cover it in oregano for you at the store, and when I get home I add my own topping: red pepper flakes, sent by my mom months ago to Chile.

Of course, you can't write about the food in Argentina without mentioning the beef. In the U.S. I don't eat a lot of red meat, and in Chile I didn't either. In fact, even during my first two months here in Buenos Aires I hardly ate any, sticking instead to pasta. However, I have to say that I have probably eaten more red meat in the last two months than in the last two years combined. I blame this on the nice weather, since in Argentina the Sunday asado (barbecue) is an old and beloved tradition, as long as it isn't raining. I know I've written about the asados before so I won't go into too much detail, but it should be noted that the beef here really is freaking amazing. It's also way cheaper than chicken or pork. I'm grateful to have tried every cut of beef and then some. I am also a huge fan of chorizo (beef sausage) morcilla (blood sausage). At first the consistency of the latter threw me but then I learned to spread it on a piece of bread and oh man, is it heavenly. I don't think I'll miss the red meat once I'm back in the states - in fact, I look forward to introducing more vegetarian dishes back into my diet - but I'll definitely forever appreciate the quality of meat I've been able to ingest while here.

One dominant ingredient in the Argentinean cuisine palate is pumpkin, which serves me just fine since 1) I love pumpkin and 2) it’s one of the new ‘superfoods’ and therefore good for you. Interestingly enough, they don't use pumpkin as a sweet ingredient like we do, but rather in savory dishes. A very common use is simple, mashed pumpkin, usually served alongside mashed potatoes. Hunks of pumpkin are included in soups and stews. Also, there is an incredible dish (to which Katharine can testify) of puréed pumpkin and tender pork pieces topped with bubbly cheese that is seriously heaven for the mouth. Pasta is often stuffed with pumpkin or pumpkin is added to the dough itself, in both fresh and store-bought varieties.

Sweet

Moving on from the salty, sweets are huge in this country. Argentina is famous for its ice cream (again, Italian influence is hard at work), and it’s no exaggeration to say there is an ice cream shop on every corner. The best part is that even the smallest cone includes two flavors, and I have yet to meet a flavor I haven’t liked. My favorites are banana split and dulce de leche, which is NOTHING like the dulce de leche we have in the U.S.

They are also into small baked goods called facturas (which is also randomly the same word for 'receipt.') The most famous is the medialuna, which are delicious little crossaints. and come in two versions: manteca (butter) which are fatter and have a sweet glaze on them, or grasa (fat) which are skinny and savory.

The dulce de leche variations are addictive here. Other than pastries with globs of the stuff filling and topping them (among my favorite facturas!), there’s a soft candy I buy frequently (thanks to Sol) called Vaquita, and I plan on bringing about 100 of them home. There’s also a cookie called an alfajor which is dulce de leche sandwiched between two cake-like cookies and covered in chocolate. These varieties and many more, including delicious cakes and torts and cookies and bread baked fresh hourly, can be found in any bakery, which can also be found on any corner. So, to revisit: every block has a bakery, an ice cream shop and a pizza spot (plus usually a cheap place where they'll do your laundry for you, but that's unrelated).

Another thing they sell in bakeries here - and going back to the salty for a moment - is a very common sandwich called a miga, which is usually ham and cheese and mayo between two pieces of white bread with the crust cut off. Other variations might have salami, tuna, hard-boiled egg, or vegetables. At first I was very anti-miga, but now I enjoy them as an afternoon snack just like the rest of the city's inhabitants. (And, for those of you gasping to yourselves at the thought of me eating mayo, it's true; I'll ingest it, but I still don't like it.)

Beverages

Like in Chile, fizzy drinks - carbonated water or soda, usually Coke - are the most common with meals. It's also not unusual to have a glass of wine with lunch (or a bottle at dinner) and for good reason - Argentina produces some of the best wines in the world, which are sold at a fraction of the cost in-country compared with the exported prices. It's also much more common at a bar to drink beer than a mixed drink, probably because it's way cheaper, but you can find any mixed drink here that exists in the U.S. In terms of water, people come down on both sides of the bottled debate. I drink from the tap here, though many foreign guidebooks would chastise me for this.

One quintessential drink that is synonymous with Argentina is yerba mate (mah-tey). Mate is as much a community event as it is a reason to ingest a stimulating drink (it has a lot of caffeine but does not produce a jittery effect; also, it dulls hunger). Yerba is the tea itself, which is poured loosely into the mate, generally a specially-prepared gourd but also made of wood, metal, or glass. Then the straw or bombilla is inserted, which is filtered so you don't suck up the mate itself. If desired, sugar is added on top, though most people argue that to drink mate the 'authentic' way it must be amargo, or bitter. Finally, hot water is poured on top and consumed immediately, even if near-boiling - they have very tough mouths here, I've surmised. An entire mate can be consumed in just a few pulls of the straw, and then it is filled with water again and passed to the next person. The leaves can be recycled for several cups' worth before it becomes lavado, or washed, at which point they are changed and it starts over. Even in a large group, everyone shares one mate (and one straw), so it is very much a community experience. I have grown to love and even crave mate, and I always enjoy the experience of sharing it with friends or my neighbors. It's extremely common to take mate to a park or a plaza, and there is a large industry for hot-water thermoses and special leather or cloth bags to hold all the accoutrement.

For other caffeine fixes, the coffee here is typically instant in the home but brewed or, better, pulled fresh from an espresso machine if ordering in a restaurant or cafe. The cafe con leche (coffee with milk) here is excellent, though many U.S. citizens, obviously missing their 32-ounce lattes, complain about the relatively small size of such drinks. For me, they are perfect. Also, they always come with two tiny cookies and a small cup of soda water which I think is a fantastic bonus, because I love free things.

Dining Out

Although I may have dissed on the ethnic options available, it has to be said that Buenos Aires has some of the coolest restaurants I've ever been to. Mostly located in the chic area known as Palermo, this cosmopolitan city certainly knows how to show its people a good meal in a classy setting. One of my favorite elements of said restaurants is that many include outdoor seating, often on elaborately designed and decorated patios and rooftop decks, perfect for enjoying the hot springtime weather of late (though I imagine once summer hits people cling closely to the air conditioning unints). The social atmosphere and importance of restaurants here cannot be understated, and I've done my best to visit a wide cross-section of them while here.

Standards of service are varied. It's most common to enter a restaurant and seat yourself at whichever table sparks your fancy, though if you arrive in the time between breakfast and lunch it's best to sit at a table designated for whichever you want: for breakfast, sit at a table without a tablecloth or place settings; otherwise they will (unnecessarily in my opinion) remove everything from the table if all you want is a coffee and a few medialunas.

Lunch is typically chosen from the daily menu, a price fixe meal that generally includes a drink, an entrée, and a dessert or a coffee. The most common menu includes a milanesa, which is a breaded and fried cut of meat, usually chicken or beef but occasionally fish as well. This is generally served with half mashed potatoes and half mashed pumpkin. On the 29th of each month, every restaurant will offer gnocchi for its lunch menu, eaten to bring good luck in the next month.

Service is typically slow and, as in most Spanish-speaking countries, the bill will never be brought to the table until it is requested. However, the service does not tend to be negligent, waiters are often very friendly, and I usually feel as if the tip (10%) has been earned when I leave it.

Everywhere you go serves bread, no matter what. The cheaper places serve you bread without butter or oil, and seem to recycle the bread that isn’t used to the next customer. This seems to be generally accepted by customers, who always take the first piece of bread they touch and will then set the bread on the table or a plate if provided, but never back into the basket. The nicer places usually serve bread with butter, oil, or some kind of sauce, paté, or topping. One thing that is consistent is the amount: you are guaranteed to get an absurd number of rolls. For instance, at lunch one day I counted that I, a solo diner, was served TWELVE rolls. Twelve? Really? I did appreciate that this particular restaurant seemed to bake their own bread and it was hot out of the oven in three different varieties of white, wheat, and something deliciously orange, but I ate two of them and felt guilty for that.

One thing I do miss is the ability to send something back that I’m unhappy with; although technically I’m able to do so, it’s just not that common here. If something arrives cold, you eat it cold. This especially drives me mad when ordering empanadas or pastry pies, since they are often cold in the middle. Even asking for it ‘extra hot’ doesn’t provide desired results. (One reason La Americana has a leg up on everyone else – their goods are always piping hot!)

Conclusion

I'm sure I'm leaving out a ton of things but it's impossible to describe everything edible in a city as large as this one. I hope I've given you a reasonable overview and that you now know what kinds of food might be awaiting you should you make the trek to Argentina yourself.

Stay tuned for (what I hope are, we'll see if I get them both written) my last two blogs, one on my final days (I'm packing a lot in!) and another on Argentinean customs and differences before I head back to Yanquilandia this Friday.

p.s. This is my 50th blog, which feels like a milestone somehow, so, hooray for the 50th!

p.p.s. For those of you who are dismayed that I wrote an entire post without a single picture of food: there are plenty of examples of empanadas, asados, and other delectable delights posted in my Picasa albums.

4 comments:

Sunshine said...

Hi! Here I'm!!!
There's nothing like dulce de leche... you're forgetting about the Vauquita!!!
About mate... for us, argentinean, it's kind of hard travelling with the mate (please, later on post a photo so everybody know what I'm talking about) because of its shape. And about the yerba itself, we explain it with 2 words "Argentinean tea"...
I feel kind of sad that you didn't find that many interesting food from other cultures... When u come back, I'll make you try the dishes from Russia, Germany, Vietnam, China, Japan (I agree with you on the salmon thing... I don't know why we only do it!!! I actually don't like it so I go to the veggie one or kanikama... but u haven't tried mine!!!), Turkye... and so on...
This is getting long & I'm going nowhere so... Bye bye my favourite yankee :-P
Ooooh, one thing before leaving: about ice-cream: we have Vainilla & Cream flavours... they are completely different & if I didn't hear wrong at Thanksgiving dinner, you guys don't have it!
XOXOXO (Gossip girl :-P)

Sara said...

Hooray for the restaurants in Palermo! I like Argentine food better than Chilean food, but you are right. There is very little variety on either side of the border, although things some how manage to taste a little better on the Argentine side of the border.

When do you head back to the US? Or do you?

Sarah P said...

ohhhh you made me so hungry I had to grab a bag of chips from the kitchen and start munching :)

carrola29 said...

I love prieta (blood sausage)too! I was totally repulsed by it when Rafael told me what was in it, but I was forced to try it when his kind and generous aunt and uncle were watching me, excitedly. I remember taking the TINIEST forkful adn eating it with papas, but it was DELISH and i ended up eating 2 whole links. Along the lines of empanadas. . . eggplant? I'm SO JEALOUS! I'm in an I-hate-chilean-food mood (more than I normally am)