Ask anyone what they plan to eat on their Argentina vacation and you can be almost sure of getting one answer – steak! True enough, the land of bife de chorizo is not a vegetarian’s foodie haven, but for everyone else, a good portion of a top notch Argentina tour will be spent around the table, tucking into empanadas, delicious pastries, milanesa cutlets served with crisp papas fritas, dolce de leche, generously poured glasses of Malbec, and lots and lots of delicious meat.
So crucial is food to experiencing Buenos Aires, that one unique culinary adventure you can enjoy in the city calls itself The Argentine Experience. This tasty and informative journey through several courses of Argentine favourites combines a magnificent dinner with generous pours of wine, plus interactive insights and tips on Argentine cuisine. Getting to the heart of The Argentine Experience, one local flavour at a time. From folding empanadas, to preparing mate, to the crucial, yet often overlooked skill of ordering one’s steak in local Spanish, The Argentine Experience prepares diners for several days of deliciousness in the capital – not to mention several weeks at the gym once they return home.
The Art of Empanadas
Empanadas are ubiquitous throughout South America, and it isn’t hard to see why. These delicious baked (or fried) pastry parcels are packed with meat, chicken (carne or ‘meat’ almost always means beef in Argentina), cheese, spices, or if you’re particularly lucky, the odd vegetable. As a quick and cheap snack, the humble empanada is hard to beat. But there’s a little more art to Argentina’s favourite street food than its unassuming appearance would suggest. Much of the skill in an empanada is in the folding, which is much more than simply sealing up the pastry. An intricate, steady series of pinches and twists ensures the empanada remains both intact and delicious, protecting the all-important filling inside. Best to pay attention and get it right! At The Argentine Experience, you’ll be tucking into that empanada after a few minutes in the oven (and a glass of wine). Ever a city to combine art and practicality, Buenos Aires knows the filling of its empanadas by their unique shape, taking the guesswork (though also some of the fun, if you’re adventurous) out of the popular snack. Still, The Argentine Experience invites its guests to go one better, crafting the most decorative and elaborate empanada they can… though several of us are a bit disappointed when we don’t get to eat our ‘artistic’ empanada. In addition, as I sit there, pinching and shaping my pastry into a configuration that is neither particularly decorative nor practical, I wonder if anyone has mentioned to our hosts just how unreasonable it is to expect clear-minded creativity from people surrounded by the combined aromas of delicious wine and perfectly spiced meat fillings. It’s just a thought, soon to be washed away under another sip of Malbec.
Waiting for Steak
What do Argentines do while waiting for their steak? They enjoy pre-steak, obviously (or picada, as it’s known)! With so many flavours going into Argentine cuisine, it would be a shame not to sample them all, and the bite-sized servings that land on the table just before a main is served are the perfect opportunity to do so. From delicious balls of molten baked cheese to a tapas-style platter of bread, cheese, and chorizo, there’s plenty to try. But the highlight is undoubtedly the chimichurri sauce, a uniquely Argentine invention made from green herbs, garlic, and chili, all mixed to create a delicious green sauce that spreads beautifully over the chorizo in particular. Fact: If you’re looking for a delicious, fast lunch in Argentina, a choripan smothered in chimichurri fits the bill nicely. But the full snack is a bit much for this dinner, on top of the incoming steak, so a picada is the perfect way to taste its most delicious elements before the country’s most famous export (though not its biggest, which will surprise you) arrives.
All About the Beef!
All right, so full disclosure. Though I embarked on my Argentine Experience on my third night in Buenos Aires, I certainly had not waited that long for my first taste of bife de chorizo. In fact, I’d been spoiled on my very first night in the city with some deliriously good steak at a tiny local restaurant in Palermo, followed by another steak on my second night which was… not. A critical part of the Argentine Experience is understanding that while a great cut of meat is important, even the best steak can be sabotaged by the diner not knowing how to order. This is a fairly straightforward question of knowing the Spanish for “rare” or “medium” (or *cough* “well done,” if you insist on destroying a beautiful product of nature), with correct local pronunciation. Fortunately, my pitiful Spanish doesn’t fall too far off the mark. Cutting into the delicious slab of meat that has landed in front of me reveals exactly the pink, tender and succulent inside I’d hoped for, and… while we’re talking about excellent steak, excellent steak is getting cold. What kind of barbarian lets excellent steak get cold?
Mates for Life
From Argentina’s most appealing signature flavour to its most popular “acquired taste,” Mate is a fixture of Argentine daily life. But for many tourists, it’s one of the country’s most confounding addictions. It’s not at all unusual to see Argentines going about their daily business with a thermos of this bitter herbal tea tucked under one arm, ready to be shared at any time of day or night. With a slew of supposed health benefits and a ritualized serving method that would seem more at home in Japan than South America, mate is the ‘official’ drink of Argentina, and is widely enjoyed in neighbouring Uruguay and Paraguay as well. Tourists who brave the beverage, however, are often left wondering how such a… distinctive flavour managed to seduce a nation addicted to dolce de leche. The Argentine Experience aims to shed some light on this, unveiling an elaborate, multi-step preparation involving the correct measurement of leaves (far more than would go into a more typical tea drink), and the vigorous shaking of those leaves to extract the green powder largely responsible for mate’s bitter taste. Failure to do this, we’re warned, will bring a world of pain to the unsuspecting taste buds of those not used to the flavour. The dedicated mate straw, known as a bombilla is then inserted carefully into the herbs and allowed to rest, before a small amount of water is finally added, and the first brave mate participant – usually the host who made it – takes the first sip, ensuring a smooth and flavourful (for better or worse) mate for guests. The host then refills the mate (also the name of the mug it’s served in) with water and passes it around. All guests share the bombilla, which is not to be moved or touched under any circumstance whatsoever, lest you offend your host’s mate serving skills. The exact origins of the rule are unclear, with theories ranging from hygiene to avoiding accidental clogging. In truth, most modern bombillas feature an intricate series of filters to prevent this, but old traditions die hard.
Sweetening the Meal
For those not yet feeling the need for extra gym time on their Argentina vacation, don’t worry. The humble alfajor is here to finish the job! Described by some as, “like an Oreo but 500 times better,” the alfajor is another staple across Spanish and Latin American cuisines. The Argentineans have adopted and perfected this delicious confection as their own. It’s created by joining two cookies with a generous helping of dolce de leche, then rolling the already tempting result in coconut, or yet more powdery sugar. Unlike the empanada, there is no such thing as too much filling in an alfajor, though attempting to overstuff the sweet can result in a messy explosion of condensed milk goodness when it’s time to take the first bite. Some would call this proof I put in too much. I maintain it merely means I put enough to leave my fingers coated in delicious, delicious dolce de leche after the main event. The sweetness comes as a bit of a sugar-shock after the bitter mate, but it’s a welcome one. The only challenge is stopping after one or two…
The Argentine Experience runs daily from its main restaurant in Fitz Roy, a picturesque street in the trendy Palermo district. Rather than being a cooking class, The Experience is best thought of as a multi-course dinner that teaches participants about Argentine food and culinary customs. Its operators are quite open about their dinners being events where travellers can meet each other over a shared experience, so don’t expect to find locals here. You will however find a number of guides born, raised, or educated in English-speaking countries, so communication, be it in English, Spanish, or even Portuguese, is never a problem. All scheduled dinners are conducted in English, and the focus is always on flavour and fun.