I love food. Really. I love eating food, cooking food, trying food, shopping for food, even just talking about food. Being such a self-proclaimed foodie, coming to Argentina has been an interesting experience. Instead of a “nice meal” being so determined by intriguing combinations of ingredients, the subtle addition of an obscure spice, or the artistry with which it is arranged on the plate, Argentine cuisine speaks for itself. Simple, scarcely spiced, and unfussy, the emphasis becomes less on intricate presentation and more on the preparation and quality of ingredients. This is especially true when it comes to Argentine beef, which really does live up to its divine reputation. Many Argentine restaurants offer as the main component of their menu a parrilla, which is an extensive list of meats, ranging from ribeye and stripsteak to chorizo sausage, from riñones (kidneys) to chicken breast, all cooked on the grill. They might be served with a small side of pureed calabaza (pumpkin or squash) or papas fritas, but just as often the cuts of meat fly solo, served on a slab of wood or simply on a plate.
Obviously more complex dishes do exist, and while many of them are still relatively simple and highlight each component, I have also seen some very distinctive combinations that seem to be acutely geared towards the Argentine palate. For example, green olives and hardboiled eggs are two foods that make it into a lot of dishes, which can be somewhat discomfiting at first when you’re not used to it (a side of shredded raw carrot mixed with hardboiled egg, anyone?), but soon becomes expected and regular. However, less easily adapted-to are the instances when such ingredients come together on the same plate. Along with ham, cheese, marinated asparagus…and pineapple. On an open-faced sandwich. With mayonnaise. I did not have the pleasure of consuming such an interesting meal, but I got to see my friend do so with gusto.
In Buenos Aires, which has more international influence than other parts of the country, the porteños tend to experiment more with their traditions, but for the most part, the same tried-and-true dishes and flavors appear again and again. These include milanesas, a thin piece of meat, usually beef or chicken, breaded and fried and eaten in sandwiches, with a fried egg, or alone; tartas, somewhat like a bigger and less-eggy quiche, which can be filled with a variety of ingredients, like just cheese (talk about divine…), spinach, zapatillos (small squashes), or sweet onions, but are usually some mix of vegetables with the occasional addition of chicken or ham; and lastly empanadas. Empanadas, half-moon savory pastries formed and filled by hand, are a staple of Argentine life. Practically every restaurant offers some form of empanada, you can find take-out restaurants on every corner, and they even offer them at some kioskos. They can be doughy or flaky, filled with chicken, ham and cheese, ground beef, roasted corn, onion, spinach, you name it, and often come shaped specifically to designate the type of filling inside. They generally cost four to eight pesos each (less than two dollars!) so they are a great snack on the go, but at home they are often the delicious, hand-held main course.
Another quintessential Argentine treat are alfajores, which are a layer of dulce de leche sandwiched between two light cookies and usually drenched in chocolate. Before I get ahead of myself, which could easily happen when describing these delicious desserts, dulce de leche is a thick, caramel-like spread made with milk. It is another Argentine favorite and shows up everywhere: on toast, on cakes, on fruit, and, obviously, in alfajores. Just like empanadas, they are so wildly popular and inexpensive that there are seemingly millions of variations on the original. Every kiosko displays rows upon rows of alfajores, ones with nuts, ones with three layers, ones dipped in white chocolate, ones with chocolate mousse, even ones made with Chips Ahoy (called Pepitos here). You’ve heard of the Freshman Fifteen? Well take one bite of an alfajor and you’ll be on your way to gaining the Travelling Twenty. The temptation to work my way through and try every different kind is overwhelming, but since I have a year I figured I should pace myself. So far my favorites have been one made with a wafery meringue cookie at a local café and a jumbo-sized one made with buttery shortbread cookies at another. But at the kiosko, I still go for a new one every time.
When Argentines find a food they like, they really go for it. It seems like it could get a little monotonous, but Buenos Aires and all its cosmopolitanism offer enough variety to keep one on one’s toes. However, it is also a joyful adventure to become an expert, spending your meals searching for the single best example of the classic Argentine cuisine.