Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Food Revolts, Argentina

I did not like the food in Argentina.

Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I was ill prepared.

I did not expect to find spice eschewed to the point that black pepper is unavailable at most restaurants. I did not realize the Italian heritage of Buenos Aires would manifest as freezer gnocchi and the worst pizza in the world. I did not think a country with a 5,000km coastline would neglect seafood, or that the steaks I ate would, rather than "blowing my mind," be indistinguishable from the meat I occasionally consume in the States (disclaimer: I am not the best judge of steak). I did not know most baked goods would be either sickly sweet or stuffed with deli ham.

Why was I ill prepared?

There is a hype on Argentine cuisine. It is prevalent among foreign travelers in South America. "The food is awesome." "The steak is amazing." This is repeated by backpackers both coming from and heading to Argentina. Within the tourist-trail culture of the continent, it is common knowledge.

I bought in. I was disappointed.

In one silly way, this disappointment made me feel superior. It was fun to imagine myself the minority, the underdog, the holder of on-the-ground, unadulterated TRUTH, standing with objectivity against a horde of hype and hyperbole.

But feeling superior also made me feel like an asshole. And my disappointment put me at odds with my friends. It made me question my tastes, worry that maybe I was, to quote a comment from one of my Matador articles, "some sort of nerd that just hates normal stuff." Worse, it made me question why I had come to Argentina at all, and whether I had any right to be there.

Over the last few weeks, I learned I am not the only normal-hating nerd out there. Andrea and John of and Ayngelina of Bacon is Magic recently rated Argentine food a "meh." This is the only negativity I have seen the travel blog world bestow on Argentine cuisine (with the exception of Tom Gates' pizza, of course).

Why are these posts appearing now? Is the hype thinning? Is there a food revolt sparking among travelers in Argentina? Are nerds multiplying?

I don't know.

When I read these posts, I say FINALLY out loud. But then I feel that same urge of dissent, that pride of the underdog, pulling me towards an about-face. Not a full 180...the truth is, though, I didn't hate 100% of the things I put in my stomach in Argentina.

So in the interest of honesty--and maybe a little guilt--after several paragraphs of cuisine-culture bashing, I've come to a very different focus with this post: what I enjoyed, food-wise, during my months in Buenos Aires. Some of it is even Argentine.

* medialunas and mate - Most afternoons, my wife and I would leave our 10th-floor apartment with a termo and a canister of mate, walk to the corner bakery and pick up a pair of medialunas, and continue to Bosque de Palermo where we'd eat and drink by the pond. The sweet glaze of the croissant was cut nicely by the bitterness of the unfiltered tea.
* Barrio Chino - Once I discovered you can buy Mexican salsa at the grocery stores in Chinatown, my outlook on BsAs started improving. Some of the Asian restaurants here are good too. There's also a Koreatown around Carabobo south of 25 de Mayo.
* animal guts - Americans are a world minority in that we forgo the non-flesh parts of our meat animals. The oily, acrid smell and taste of intestines is the only way in which the Argentine parrilla reminded me of the Korean 고깃집. Sweetbreads was a new favorite for me.
* random (non-buffet) veggie restaurants - There were a few: Bio comes to mind, as does Buenos Aires Verde.


Kathy Amen said...

The lack of good seafood is the strangest thing. Wonder what the history behind that is?

Dan said...

Seafood isn't ignored throughout the country, but isn't traditional here in Buenos Aires. First off, while yes, the country has a long coastline, the city's not on it - it's on a river, nearly five hours from the ocean. And the part of the coastline where most of the good seafood is caught is far further away, in Patagonia. Until recently there was no system of quality delivery of seafood from there to here, and it was common to have fish simply thrown on a bed of ice and driven up by truck - sometimes taking 2-3 days to get here. You can guess why it wasn't overly popular.

The culture in BA is very meat oriented and has been, it's the remains of the gaucho (cowboy) tradition that the area was founded under. And spices simply weren't available here, again, transport was a major problem until recent years. So, the cuisine developed accordingly. Steak/beef is the raison d'etre, and that's what local food is known for, and justifiably so - if you want spicier, or more like what us gringo-types think of as "latin american" food, you have to go to the far north of the country, or better yet, a different one. The food scene is changing with new sources of ingredients (though often expensive - that pesky 50% import tax on all foreign goods), and more exposure to creative cooking and techniques from other parts of the world. Five years ago all those spices you found in China/Korea town, weren't here.

As to the Italian, sure, it's the major heritage here, but we're talking about generations ago, with little direct contact or influence since then, and no access to the ingredients that are classic in Italian cooking - not surprising, again, that "Italian food" in Argentina bears little resemblance to its ancestry.

By the way, the "meh" to Argentine cooking isn't new in the blogosphere or to anyone here, it's just too many people rely on guidebooks and newspaper/magazine articles that are paid-for fluff pieces.

Kimberly said...

Traditional lunches in Argentina are long and well developed. Most of the popular food has European roots. Lots of meats, pastas and breads are included in an Argentina diet. Actually the reason why I got a Buenos Aires rent was to be able to cook and prepare meals I learnt during the trip and to eat well. Loved the experience and I added a few more receipes to my list!