Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to Argentine Cuisine
For this week's edition of Here, Eat This, we venture into South America, where hardy Houstonians possessed of a hearty appetite will find much to love in the pampas of Argentina.
Photo by Troy Fields Argentina's new tourism slogan ought to be: "A Meat Lover's Paradise."
Argentina is yet another beef-obsessed nation, much like Korea, where the cowboys in South America routinely consume 150 to 200 pounds of beef per person each year. Much like Texas, however, the country's varied cultural influences have created an atmosphere that blends foods and influences seamlessly.
Italian and German immigrants to the country brought their culture, architecture, music and food -- especially to the capital city of Buenos Aires, which could pass as an old European city at first glance -- and those cuisines have melded with Spanish and native Indian foods to create a national cuisine that's as much a melting pot as our own.
It's not unusual to find Italian dishes such as pizza and pasta, German dishes like schnitzel (repurposed here as milanesa) and Spanish dishes like empanadas all keeping company together on one menu. Argentines even have their own version of barbecue called asado. Argentine restaurants offer food that's accessible to even the shyest eater -- but there are still a few odd and interesting gems to be appreciated along the way.
Photo by Troy Fields Indoor asado set-up at Pampa Grill.
As mentioned, this is the Argentine version of barbecue. Food writer and historian John T. Edge, speaking at the Foodways Texas symposium last weekend, noted that the word "barbacoa" (from which "barbecue" stems) originally referred only to the structure used to elevate and cook the meat over an open flame. Typical asados in Argentina are the precursor to a George Foreman grill: Foods are fastened to a large tilted grilling area that allows the fat to drip off while the meat is cooked over hot coals. The result -- as seen at restaurants such as Pampa Grill -- is meat that's flavored with the rugged char of the grill instead of greasy smoke. Anything from chicken to beef can be cooked this way, although it's most common to find short ribs, flank steak, skirt steak and offal on the asado.
Morcilla and mollejas
Photo by Troy Fields The morcilla is that plump black sausage in the center.
I don't need to explain ribs or steak, but these two items are equally popular asado-style meats. If you order a parillada (a portable hibachi-style grill that's delivered to your table with the sizzling asado-cooked meat heaped on top), you'll probably find both among the piles of beef. Morcilla is the Argentine version of blood sausage -- a delicacy found across the world, also called "black pudding" -- served in giant, plump links that bear a creamy, nutmeg- and clove-laced interior once you cut through the tender skin. Mollejas are simply sweetbreads, those unctuous little offal rounds, crisped up on the grill and full of flavor.
Photo by Troy Fields Empanadas at Marini's.
Every culture has a pocket food. In Argentina -- as with its original colonial power, Spain -- it's the empanada. But there are a few specialty flavors to look for when you're browsing Argentine delis like Manena's or Marini's: Empanadas de humita bring to mind corn casseroles with their filling of lightly creamed corn and red peppers, while the empanadas de carne are filled with juicy ground beef mixed with green peppers, onions and chile powder.