My attempt at being a vegetarian lasted a total of 24 hours after landing in Buenos Aires. Who was I kidding? I set foot in a nation internationally renowned for its steak. I should have been more prepared for carne-coma heaven.
BBQs back home are already hard enough to resist, let alone asados, the Argentine, and infinitely superior – might I add – version of the UK’s beloved supermarket sourced grilled hot dogs and burgers, washed down with lager. What makes the Latin American asado so much better than the American BBQ or the South African braai? A lot of things.
Firstly, meat to the Argentine is what the baguette is to the French. It’s a daily necessity; a staple food. It is, without doubt, a source of national pride. Argentina is all about the carne. Not wanting to exaggerate, I’d go as far as saying both words are synonymous. Once you’ve had your first steak, you are part of the cult. Word on the street is that, give or take a few steaks, Argentines on average get through 60kg of the mouth-watering protein each year, with its record year of 100kg being in 1956. That is more than double the (North) American consumption.
This is due to the alleged reality (along with the successful work of the IPCVA in ensuring the international competitiveness of Argentine beef) that cows in la pampa are grass-fed and roam free in top quality, vast and open pasture. While I hate to rain on your meaty-parade, that is not entirely true.
Sure, they aren’t trapped by their hundreds in enclosures the size of a Palermo monoambiente, but as a consequence of the country’s economic challenges, over the past decade, the agriculture industry has, in part, moved from grass-feeding to feedlots. No need to worry though, the beasts are still stress-free and healthy. It’s just that some of them are perhaps not quite as organic as they were pre-2001 economic crisis. Nowadays, you find premium-labelled steak, which back in the grass-fed-only glory days, was standard. It was all premium.
I mean, you can still taste the freedom. Freedom, which comes in all shapes, forms, textures, smells, flavors and colors, and all of which have their specific terminology; be it ojo de bife (rib eye), bife de chorizo (sirloin), lomo (fillet), entreña (skirt), morcilla (black pudding) the list goes on. They are still a big deal. They have a more detailed wikipedia page than the President’s for crying out loud.
Secondly, unlike the steaks I’ve had back home, here they are gigantic and they are comparatively more affordable. In fact, a bife de chorizo in a local Disco supermarket chain (169$/kg) is 3 times cheaper than in, say, a Tesco supermarket (£22/kg) in the UK. I’ll save you from doing the math. When converted to (blue) dollars that’s US$10.87/kg in Argentina vs. US$33.88/kg in the UK. In other words, way cheaper. Like, $23.01 per kilogram of sirloin cheaper. Start booking your flights to EZE.
Served standing 2 to 3 inches tall, the juicy chunks are accompanied by a portion of chimichurri which you’re expected to dunk into before letting your taste buds jolt into a wild and exquisite fury. For those of you who aren’t familiar with chimichurri, on the condiment spectrum, it stands more or less between Mexican salsa and Italian pesto – made up of oil, vinegar, garlic, parsley, oregano, hot peppers, salt and pepper. Albeit the various ways of making it will alter its position on this scale – you’ll sometimes have it heavier on the lemon, hotter, greener, redder, runnier, thicker, milder, chunkier, gloopier, herbier. You might even get some red wine thrown into the mix, if you’re lucky.
Thirdly, the asado is an event, a ritual, a ceremony. You can’t just whip out the small, round, metallic BBQ and turn on the gas like one would on the only day of sunshine in London. You don’t just chuck a slab of steak onto a parilla and eat it trapped between two soggy bread buns (soggy from the drizzle, that is. I was joking, there are no days of sunshine in London). The asado takes hours. Long, frustratingly delicious-smelling hours of waiting. This wait, however is more than worthwhile. Moreover, along with the Sunday gathering of friends and family, the trip to the butchers, the divine flavors and heavenly textures, I have come to understand that it is precisely this period of preparation that turns the steak grilling into a quasi-religious ritual.
The preparation (accompanied by a glass, or two – maybe more, of Malbec) takes as long as the cooking. There is always a designated meat griller. He is the asador – and he (yes, he, because yes, this is Argentina and supposedly tossing raw meat is a job only a man is capable of doing) prepares the embers, taking them from a pile in the corner of the grill, aligning them neatly in multiple rows on the stone once the fire’s burned out to regulate the meat’s cooking temperature. During which time (because gender-stereotype clichés never get old) women prepare the salad.
That said, my best asado thus far was prepared by an Argentine lady (take that, machismo!) who sure knew how to grill. Hey, times are changing over here. Argentina has a fairly long history of women taking the reigns, and this pattern is slowly, but surely spilling over to the asado. Chauvinists, watch this space. We are taking the tongs.
Last but certainly not least, all that accompanies the steak adds up to make the ultimate asado equation. Sure, at a BBQ we sometimes wrap our sausages in bacon before throwing them onto the grill, and it does taste rather “delightful”, but it has nothing on the choripán and even less on the provoleta. Let me explain. The choripán is juicy, chunky and greasy. To the foreigner it looks like a hot dog. Truth be told, there is no comparison; especially post-slab of succulently spicy chimichurri. It is king of the bread and sausage combo. And as far as side dishes go, the variations here are plentiful. Some will leave a cracked open egg to slowly cook inside a half sliced grilling pepper, while others will opt for salad drizzled with oil and salt or some grilled corn.
The provoleta will blow your mind as much as the meat, the choripán, the sauce and the wine do. It is the midway point between summer grilled halloumi and winter alpine fondue. A culinary eruption where freshly grilled bread is dunked, which combined with all the aforementioned, draws the last straw, guaranteeing a stomach-stretching, certainly, but also infinitely satisfying food coma.
That is your cue to bring out the bottle of fernet and wash it all down. Loosen your belt and enjoy. September 21st is fast approaching.
(If you are a vegetarian, firstly, I salute you; and secondly, you probably haven’t read down this far but if you did, don’t worry, Buenos Aires is also equipped with restaurants where you can escape the steaks and the carnivores.)