Food from Argentina
Argentine food could be summed up by one word: "beef". Not just any beef, but the best in the world, succulent, cherry-red, healthy - and certainly not mad - meat raised on some of the greenest, most extensive pastures known to cattle. The barbecue or asado is an institution, every bit a part of the Argentine way of life as football, fast-driving and tango.
But that's not the whole story. In general, you nearly always eat well in Argentina and you seldom have a bad meal, portions are always generous and the raw ingredients are of an amazingly high quality.
Even so, imagination, innovation and a sense of subtle flavor are sometimes lacking, with Argentines preferring to eat the wholesome but often bland dishes their immigrant forebears cooked. The produce of Argentina's vineyards, ranging from gutsy plonk to some of the world's prize-winning wines, are increasingly available abroad; they make the perfect companion to a juicy grilled bife de chorizo. The quality of the wine is just beginning to be matched by some of the inventive cordon bleu cooking concocted by some daring young chefs at a few expensive restaurants across the country. Fast food is extremely popular but you can snack on local specialities such as empanadas and lomitos if you want to avoid the ubiquitous multinational burger chains.
Argentineans love eating out, even if that only means sharing a pizza in a shopping mall or grabbing a dozen empanadas, and in Buenos Aires especially eateries stay open all day and till very late. By South American standards the quality of restaurants is high, with prices to match. If you eat à la carte you'll be hard put to find a main dish for under $10 but, as elsewhere in the continent, you can keep costs down by eating at the market, at a fast-food outlet (not necessarily McDonald's) or by making lunch your main meal (it's usually served from noon to 3pm), to take advantage of the menú del día or menú ejecutivo - usually good-value set meals for $8-10 all in. In the evening tenedor libre or diente libre restaurants are just the place if your budget's tight. You can eat as much as you like, they're usually self-service (cold and hot buffets plus grills) and the food is fresh and well prepared, if a little dull; most of Argentina's "Chinese" restaurants, many of them dazzlingly cavernous palaces with dozens of tables, offer this format but little in the way of real Chinese food. Watch out for hidden extras on the bill such as dishes not included in the set price, drinks, coffee, etc.
Cheaper hotels and more modest accommodation often skimp on breakfast: you'll be lucky to be given more than tea or coffee, and some bread, jam and butter, though the popular media lunas (small, sticky croissants) are sometimes also served. More upmarket hotels will go all out to impress you with their "American-style" buffet breakfast: an array of cereals, yoghurts, fruit, breads and even eggs, bacon and sausages, making it worthwhile getting up early and making it down to the restaurant. The sacred national delicacy dulce de leche is often provided for spreading on toast or bread, as is top-notch honey. Tea is often served in the afternoon - especially by anglophiles - with facturas, a variety of sticky pastries, a bulging box of which is frequently offered to hosts as a gift. Hardly any restaurant opens for dinner before 8pm, and in the hotter months - and all year round in Buenos Aires - few people turn up before 10 or 11pm. Don't be surprised to see people pouring into restaurants well after midnight; Porteños and Argentines in general are night owls and wouldn't dream of dining early.
If you're feeling peckish during the day there are plenty of minutas or snacks to choose from. The lomito is a nourishing sandwich filled with a juicy slice of steak, often made with delicious pan árabe while the chivito is made with a less tender cut; it was originally a Uruguayan term, used in Buenos Aires, but it also means kid, a speciality of the Central Sierras region. Other street food includes the choripán, South America's version of the hot-dog, but made with meaty sausages (chorizos), and at cafés a popular snack is the tostado, a toasted cheese-and-ham sandwich, usually daintily thin and sometimes called a carlitos. Barrolucas are beef and cheese sandwiches, a local variant on the cheeseburger, named after a Chilean president, and very popular in western Argentina, around Mendoza. Milanesas, in this context, refer to breaded veal escalopes in a sandwich, hamburger-style.
To ring the changes in your diet, you can tap into the variety of cuisines reflecting the mosaic of different communities who have migrated to Argentina over the decades. Italian influences on the local cuisine are very strong, and authentic Italian cooking, with a marked Genoese flavor, is available all over the country, but especially in Buenos Aires.
Spanish restaurants serve tapas and familiar dishes such as paella while specifically Basque restaurants are also fairly commonplace. These are often the places to head for if fish or seafood takes your fancy. Chinese and, increasingly, Korean restaurants are to be found in nearly every Argentine town, but they rarely serve anything remotely like authentic Asian food and specialize in tenedor libre buffet diners, where one or two token dishes might be slightly more exotic, though more often than not they are Sino-American inventions, such as chow mein or chop suey, at times liberally spiked with MSG. Japanese, Indian and Thai food has become fashionable in Buenos Aires, where nearly every national cuisine from Armenian to Vietnamese via Persian and Polish is available, but such variety is almost unheard of in the provinces.
On the other hand, Arab or Middle Eastern food, including specialities such as kebabs and kepe, seasoned ground raw meat, is far more widespread, as is German fare, such as sauerkraut (chucrút) and frankfurters, along with Central and Eastern European food, often served in choperías or beer-gardens. Welsh tearooms are a speciality of Patagonia, where tea and scones are part of the Welsh community's identity.
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© Photograph "Barbecue" by Aifos | Agency: iStockphoto.com
© Photograph "Pizza - Serving" by Emrah Turudu | Agency: iStockphoto.com
© Photograph "Drinking Wine" by Danijel Micka | Agency: Dreamstime.com