19 . 09 . 16
A Backpacker’s Food Directory: Sleepless and Full in Argentina
King Crab in Ushuaia, Fernet, The Perito Moreno glacier, tango in Buenos Aires. Writing and images by Julia Georgallis.
My memories of Argentina are mainly associated with a total lack of sleep and an abundance of red things and carbohydrates – the red things mainly being red wine and red meat. There were literally days where I had steak for lunch AND dinner. In this hazy, meat induced dream that was the beginning of my haphazard wanderings around the Latin American continent, I ate to my heart’s content until I was no longer a pasty, skinny Brit who burned up too many calories by worrying about things and became a much fatter, browner, backpacker at the hands of empanadas and Malbec. Rather than travel the length and breadth of the country, I got a bit stuck in Mendoza and spent far too much time in Buenos Aires. There was also a trip to Iguassu Falls where we kept leap frogging over the Brazilian and Argentinian border and a week long excursion to El Calafate and Ushuaia in Patagonia. Here are the things that I ate during that happy month in Argentina.
This post was written in 2016, so please update me if you see that any of the restaurants that I have mentioned have closed down or you had a really bad meal there!
I ate so much red meat that I was genuinely quite worried about my health. But then I just washed it down with some wine and forgot all about it. Here’s what I learned about being a carnivore in Argentina…
– Blue Steak – If you ask for your steak blue, an Argentine will look at you as if you have four noses and six eyebrows – it’s horrifying to them. They cook their meat through. No blood in sight. As much as I love raw meat, I would recommend that you don’t ask the waiter for this – Argentinian meat is tasty enough that it doesn’t have to be raw as Argentinians know how to cook meat properly. So just go with it.
– The Whole Hog – As an adventurous eater I always assumed that I had eaten most parts of the animal (brains, stomach, liver, the lot). However, I was wrong. One afternoon in Buenos Aires, we strolled up to a place called La Cholita in Recoleta and it blew my mind. We were served quite literally every edible part of the cow – my favourite being the intestines. It was phenomenal.
– Asado – Whatever you do, however you do it, MAKE SURE YOU GO TO AN ASADO (or, Argentinian barbecue). I don’t care how you manage it, just find an Argentinian and invite yourself along if you have to. Now, I thought I knew a thing or two about barbecues, what with the whole kebab culture that I grew up with, but no. Argentinians rival any Greek on this. Their asados are totally different. Just like with everything else, Argentines take their time – the fire is wood instead of charcoal, built up and moved around the fire pit over time to control the temperature of cooking. The one BBQ that my friend Fede (king of the Mendocine asado, I should add) cooked us went on for hours and he layered the steak with cheese, pasata and peppers. Nom, nom, nom.
2. Malbec in Mendoza (Wine Harvest)
Ah Mendoza. It’s a funny place this, when we got there it was positively Autumnal. And, admittedly the town itself looks fairly unremarkable. But, it is the spiritual home of Malbec wine, surrounded by rolling vineyards of varying sizes and it was one of those places where I just couldn’t leave. It is an earthy place and it feels vast, like a sort of drunk version of the wild west – the vineyards all have this feeling of newness. By a stroke of luck, I managed to be there during ventimia or the wine harvest celebrations. By two more strokes of luck, I also ended up travelling with a sommelier AND a chef during this time, which meant that we were continuously plied with free wine by unsuspecting wine merchants. During harvest festival, the town turns into a wine fairground, with streets full of wine-tasting stalls and floats with grape harvest beauty queens throwing fruit for onlookers to catch in tall fruit baskets. If you can, visit during this time, as Mendoza is at its buzziest and you can sample everything at a much lower cost. During the rest of the year you can still cycle around drunkenly from vineyard to vineyard or get the tram that surrounds the city. My favourite vineyard was by far El Enemigo – it’s a boutique, quite bougie vineyard themed, bizarrely, on Dante Aligheri’s ‘Inferno.’ You can blend your own wine, eat delicious food and wander around looking at all their oldy worldy, but at the same time state of the art, wine making techniques. We also did a pre-booked tour with Trout and Wine, which was fancy and pricey but well worth it. The other option is just to visit a supermarket in Mendoza – the wine sections are ridiculous, excellent and much cheaper than going on a wine tour!
3. Yerba Mate
Like tea is to a Brit, mate is to an Argentine. But actually, when I think about yerba mate, this bitter green caffeinated herbal drink is so much more than ‘put the kettle on, love’ or ‘let’s get a brew on’. Much of Southern South America carts hot water flask and mate cups to drink on the go. There are even hot water dispensers in petrol stations to top up your herbs. When we rented an apartment in Mendoza, one of our Mendocina friends brought over a spare mate cup of hers for us to have because, ‘you can’t be in a Argentinian house without having a mate cup… it’s just wrong,’ she said. So we Gringos became accustomed to boiling the water, topping the cup up, drinking the contents of the cup, passing it round (without touching the metal straw – this is heresy) and talking. So try it! This special green herb that unlocks lots of conversations, fixes arguments and brings people closer together…
4. Dulce de Leche
I am obsessed with this. If dulce de leche was a person, I would stalk it. It is the most delicious bi-product of cattle farming ever. Literally meaning ‘milk jam’ dulce de leche is the best sort of condensed milk I have ever eaten. And in Argentina, Uruguay, Southern Brazil and Paraguay, they put it in EVERYTHING. Alfajores, muffins, cakes, profiterols… the lot. And, quite rightly, too.
One morning I passed by a bakery window in Palermo, Buenos Aires when I noticed that they appeared to selling dulce de leche hamburgers. This would quite obviously stop me in my tracks due to my aforementioned addiction. Sadly, this was not the case – they were, in fact alfajores de maizena – corn starch biscuits that looked like macaroons and filled with dulce de leche. These exist in two forms – the mass-produced alfajor that’s more like an oreo combined with a jammy dodger OR there are the alfajores you find in bakeries, particularly abundant in Argentina. The homemade, bakery kind are the best, with fally aparty biscuits. Delish.
I always thought that the empanada might be a relative of the Cornish pasty (it looks pretty similar, after all), however it appears it would be the cousin of the samosa, brought to Argentina via Spain. You can find empanadas in much of Latin America, but Argentinians have really taken them under their wing. Every region of Argentina has special recipes for empanadas – seafood by the coast, lamb in Patagonia, even milk soaked rice up North. My faves were empanadas humitas – corn empanadas, sometimes combined with cheese or milk (I’ve put the recipe up on my last blog post).
6. Fresh pasta
Though Argentinians are hugely influenced by Italy, don’t expect Italian pasta in Argentina. Instead it’s a glorious homemade, stodgy type that you can get in some Italian restaurants. The sauces are always quite heavy handed and generally not as refined as Italian pasta sauces but the actual pasta is definitely worth eating. I would recommend going for flavoured pastas like spinach and not ordering a sauce, maybe just asking for a bit of cheese to top it with.
Having lived in Italy, Fernet Branca is this weird digestif that old Italians in tiny villages might drink occasionally if there’s nothing left to drink. But it’s a cult in Argentina. A bit like Jagermeister gone wrong, Argentinians drink it ALL THE TIME. And if they’re not drinking it, they’re wondering when they’re going to drink it next. To reiterate, it’s a weird, weird drink. And to mute the weirdness, it’s mixed with coke and loads of ice, (because the taste of coke isn’t enough – it must also be ice cold to numb your tastebuds, I think). But as a dear Canadian friend of mine pointed out there are 5 stages of Fernet – You hate it, you tolerate it, you like it, you love it, you become an addict. For all my complaining, I got to love it. It becomes an easy drink to order and an easy drink to drink. I’ve started seeing it in the Duty Free at some British airports, so I assume it’s a trend that will wash up on our shores quite soon. Though we might be asking ourselves why we ever put up with it in 20 years time.
Our departure from Argentina imminent, a friend and I decided to catapult ourselves to Patagonia for a last, week long excursion to El Calafate (the glacier), Ushuaia (the end of the world) and Penguin Island (err… for penguins). A week is not enough. And surprisingly, the food at the last landmass before Antarctica was incredible…
– King Crab – So when we got to Ushuaia we realised that we were surrounded by freezing water. And when I hear the words ‘freezing water’ I think of one thing – KING CRABS. The most expensive crab in the world, it turns out, is not so expensive in Argentina. So we walked into this tiny little place, El Viejo Marino by the sea overlooking all the big ships and the inky water and feasted on a 10 lbs crab with an endive salad. It was the mic drop of all meals.
– The Chicken Incident – So, this is a weird one and I was debating whether or not to include this but it was too good not to. During a parilla at America del Sur hostel, we were served a spatchcocked chicken by a hairy chef. When I ate a little bit of it I suddenly realised that I had, in fact, found heaven. In this piece of chicken. I don’t know what happens to the chickens in Patagonia. Maybe they run around and make themselves super tasty in all the cold air and then bathe in glacial waters. But whatever you do, just eat some grilled chicken in Patagonia and tell me whether or not it is delicious, because I’m not sure if I’m just being delirious.
– Tea Rooms – We went on an excursion one day and visited some research centres for marine animals and on the way stopped at this delightful little tea room, quite literally in the middle of nowhere. I have no idea where I was, I had been napping and I awoke to all these beautiful lakes and crisp air. We sat inside the tea room and ordered an (admittedly overpriced) cup of tea and a slice of cake and all of a sudden I was homesick. I could have been in Wales or somewhere in the North. Forget about magic, tea and cake actually does have the power to teleport.
– A Giant Ice Cube – When you say glacier, I say whiskey. If you do nothing else in Patagonia, go for a hike on top of glacier Perito Moreno. I have and never will see anything that takes my breath so completely ever again. When we got to the top, our mental guide chipped off some ice and pulled out his cold store full of WHISKEY. I suppose all the glacier is, after all, is just one giant ice cube.
8. Buenos Aires
I’m going to end with a messy subsection, because to me, that is exactly what my memory of B.A was – a bit messy. My first stop on my 5 month trip was to this complicated, warm, sprawling metropolis. I will relay experiences in Buenos Aires as opposed to specific places, because there were just too many and too much. Here it goes, hold your breath – stuff your face full of profiterols at the Italian style bakeries, visit the ferias (or markets) in San Telmo on a Sunday morning, go for a hot drink in the old theatre in Recoleta that is now a bookshop/coffee shop, visit the stadium then enjoy a Fernet whilst watching the tango in La Boca, hang out in Palermo Soho, go for a chickpea pizza (an import from the Middle East) at 4 am at Pizza Guerrin and definitely check out Bomba de Tiempo at Konex so you can dance up the street feeling happy that you managed to get to this extraordinary place…
Phew. So there we have it. Sleepless and full in Argentina. I hope that it takes you as much by surprise as it did me, that you find many other foodie places worth talking about and that you travel happy through this wonderful country.