The Culinary Stewing Pot Of Agentinean Cuisine
When I told people I was coming to Argentina the most common reaction was, “I hope you like steak”, but the funny thing is I haven’t actually seen much steak at all. Except for my third night in Buenos Aires. It was around nine o’clock in the evening and I hadn’t eaten since lunch. My steps were hurried as I marched along, clutching my backpack to my chest. Having heard all the stories about motorbikes coming past and grabbing your bag I wasn’t letting that baby go. My worrying wasn’t confined to loosing the contents of my bag, it also included the fear of getting off at the wrong station on the subway and if so would I then get lost and be forever doomed to wander the streets of BA. Over thinking as I went, the sharp but familiar scent of bbq hit my olfactory nerves and thankfully sent enough of a message to my brain to rid it of any other thought as I followed the aroma to its source.
This turned out to be takeaway store, traditional Argentinean in style, which in another life could easily double as a butchery or “carnetaria” as they are called in Spanish. A huge vaulted ceiling towered over the strangely empty shop, the main feature being an ancient metal grill that resembled the cattle grid found at every farm gate. Slapped squarely in the middle of the grill was the rib section of Argentina’s most abundant export, Bos Taurus, and I don’t think I have ever been so in love with a bbq in my life. Sorry to all the vegan members of my family and readership. My order was sliced from the carcass, two huge pieces, wacked on the grill to sizzle a little longer, then placed inside a giant bread roll and handed to me loosely wrapped in butchers paper.
Oh the joy of the first bite, pure carnivorous delight. You’ll be happy to know I didn’t suddenly become an unrestrained meat eater at that moment, I actually made two meals out of it. I ate one piece immediately and it was good and made a stir fry out of the other piece the next night.
The migrants from Europe have all left their mark in some way on the common food of Argentina and none more so than the Italians. Of all the foods available in BUenos Aires I would have to say pizza is king, hands down, there is no competition, except maybe pasta but that’s harder to eat on the go. However, this is no mere imitation Italian, it is by far the best I have ever seen and Argentina is addicted.
I had imagined that Spanish culture would influence the diet of Argentina and maybe in the provinces this maybe so but not so much in BA. Very little fish is available, some rice and no tapas, but there is Jamon ( the special ham cured from pork that is fed on acorns before being slaughtered). Another stark difference to my experience in Spain is the abundant salad vegetables available here (All my friends will have fun times remember my constant whining about that lack). Argentinean’s seem to be very much like Australians when it comes to recognising the value of fresh fruit and vegetables.
I can’t finish this discussion about Argentinean food without mentioning one more essential food category, pastries sweet and savoury. The quality of of which rivals the shop fronts of Paris. The humble empanada is Argentina’s answer to the Aussie pie, a pillow of pastry stuffed with a variety of fillings. They may have originated in Spain but Argentina has made their own. Everywhere you go there are mounds of them and they are cheap, usually around 15 pesos or about sixty Australians cents.
Which brings me to the cost of living, Argentina is struggling and in Buenos Aires the true condition of the economy is very evident. Food costs are approximately two thirds of Australia but their actual wage is way under that. The average monthly wage in BA is around $20000 pesos per month, which equates to about 800 AU dollars where as in Australia it is about $4800 ( both after tax). In addition Argentina has something Australia doesn’t, rampaging inflation. By the end of this year, 2018, inflation will have reached approximately 40%. A street vendor who last year spent $200 au to buy enough flour for a month of making donuts now has to pay $550 au. So you say why can’t they put their price up, well then people won’t by and won’t they can’t recoup their expenditure.
The price squeeze that effects daily life in BA is less evident in Recoleta, where I am based or one one of the other more affluent barrios. However in the poverty stricken barrios, aptly named “villas miserias” ( I don’t think I need to translate that ) this is all to obvious. Oozing with the tears of of mothers trying to feed their children, the homeless and unemployed scratching through dumpsters looking for anything to sell to buy food, the dream of an average monthly wage of $20000 pesos is pure fairytale.
…… just a postscript to my earlier mention of the Argentinian love of steak. I will forever have “Cows With Guns” playing in my head when I think of Argentina or as one friend renamed the song “Cows on Buns”!
Below is my new favourite cafe in Palermo, BA…. Bellissimo!