Much like the United States, Argentina is considered a nation of immigrants. In turn, the food of the country reflects its complex and diverse history. Just like how Americans often eat foods whose origins lie outside the country, such as pizza from Italy, hot dogs from Germany, or tacos from Mexico, Argentines love to eat milanesas. Milanesas is a mix of distinct Italian, Spanish, and German dishes, European inspired pastries, and pasta dishes that seem to come straight from Italy.
Argentina’s food is also inspired by its local environment and culture. Beef is a central part of Argentina’s diet, which is probably the reason why Argentines eat more per person than any other group of people on Earth! Argentines in turn are famous for their barbecues, or asados, as they are known here. While pork and chicken are often served, the centerpiece of any true Argentine asado is beef.
What food did I try?
Asados are not an everyday occurrence. A more common and easily found food in Argentina is the empanada, a turnover type pastry that can be filled with a combination of meats, cheeses or vegetables. Empanadas are not unique to Argentina though. They can be found in pretty much any country that was colonized by Spain or Portugal, from the Philippines to Uruguay. The ones here in Argentina are unique in that their fillings are made from local ingredients and mirror the country’s diet as a whole.
Another of my favorites here is the milanesa, which is basically a thin slice of meat (usually either beef or chicken) that is breaded and cooked. While milanesas are found throughout the Spanish-speaking world much like the empanada, the Argentine variety has heavy Central European roots and somewhat resembles the wiener schnitzel.
I know all this talk about dinner has got some of you thinking, “What about the good stuff …desert!?” Well not to worry, Argentines are pros at making some delicious sweets! Here in Buenos Aires, one can find a bakery filled with cakes, cookies, and other such things almost every few blocks! One of the central ingredients used here is dulce de leche, a caramel-like substance that is made by slowing heating sweetened condensed milk.
How did I feel when I tried it?
Because my mom is from Argentina, I grew up eating many of the foods that I am now having on a daily basis. For me, food and drink has always been a way for me to connect to an identity that I have at times neglected forgotten.
How is this food prepared?
One of the most important aspects of not just Argentine food culture, but culture in general, is yerba maté (JER-BA MAH-TAY). Yerba is Spanish for ‘herb’ and mate is the name of the plant that the drink is brewed from. Found throughout the north of Argentina, its origins are indigenous in origin, in that maté drinking can be traced to the actions of Argentina’s original inhabitants. Among these groups are the Guaraní, whose ancestors were known to the suck on the leaves of the maté plant as it served as a stimulant much like coffee, tea, or soda does for people today.
All you need in order to prepare mate is a gourd or similar drinking cup, a bombilla or a metal straw that is used to strain out the leaves, and some hot water. Maté has quite a bitter taste so many people, especially children, like to put a little sugar in with the leaves as to make it a little sweeter. While it is not very well known in the U.S., it is growing in popularity due to its health benefits and the fact that it has caffeine. Yerba maté is usually sold in packages much like flour, and can be found in the U.S. at many health food stores.
What is unusual about maté is the manner in which it is prepared. In order to make the drink, a person first puts ground up and dried maté leaves into a hallowed out gourd. Usually, it is advised that people leave about two thirds of an inch of space between the leaves and the rim of the gourd. Traditionally, this gourd is made by drying out a squash or melon, however many people today also use more modern cups made of plastic or metal. After placing the tea leaves into the gourd, it is usually recommended that one pours a few drops of lukewarm water into the gourd so that the leaves can swell up a little bit so that they can hold more water. At this step, some people will put a little sugar or artificial sweeter in with the tea leaves. After this, the bombilla is placed at an angle into the gourd with the bottom of the straw nearly touching the bottom of the gourd.
Now that the maté is ready, you can finally brew it! The next step is to pour hot water into the gourd until the leaves are saturated, in that they are full of water. After about thirty seconds, you can begin to drink. Maté is usually drunk in groups where everyone shares the same straw. While this does carry some health risks, it is a vital part of Argentine culture. People will often sit around a table drinking maté for hours while talking and bonding.
Is this food connected to the environment? How?
Maté is connected to the environment of Argentina in that it is derived from a plant that is native to Argentina. The maté plant can be found throughout northern Argentina and also in territories belonging to Argentina’s neighbors of Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil. Originally a wild species, maté is now grown in plantations where farmers pick the leaves off the plant so that they can be processed and sold.
The plant looks much like a bush and is quite resistant to extreme heat. This is important as in the northern provinces of Corrientes and Misiones where maté is grown; the climate is quite hot and humid with temperatures rarely going below 50 degrees in the winter!