Reputation and Reality
Argentina is well reputed for fine dining, great steaks and rich wine. In my humble opinion Argentina’s culinary reputation is based solitarily on tourist experiences. Eating in Argentina for a week as a tourist could be an amazing culinary vacation in a carnivore’s paradise. The meat here is delicious. Cattle are grass fed on flat terrain, making them fat and tender. With the advantageous exchange rate, tourists can eat at some of the finest restaurants in town, gorging on filet minion and kobe beef, washed down with well reputed Malbec wines. Or if Italian food strikes your fancy, Buenos Aires is filled with Italian restaurants boasting homemade pastas, raviolis with artisan fillings, and a selection of countless sauces to accompany. Living here is a different story. Eating like a tourist is completely unrealistic, and would render one rather hefty after a few weeks. Not to mention that on a teacher’s salary, one has to live, well, modestly. The truth is that after living here for awhile, most people tire of the food.
My biggest critique is that Argentine cuisine lacks variety, vegetables and convenience. Although every restaurant has salad on the menu (usually a simple lettuce and tomato salad), vegetables are not widely incorporated into meals. They are often used more as accents to a main dish, or sometimes served as a side dish. Some days I will walk around town, totally hungry, but there is nothing that I want to eat! Empanadas, migas sandwiches, pasta or meat have become so tiresome and repetitive. If you’re not predisposed to only consuming meat and carbohydrates, food here is not satisfying and makes you feel sluggish and bloated. Lunch is the hardest meal to coordinate as an English teacher. Since most students prefer to have class during their lunch hour, a teacher will not have a break until 2:30. Days when I do not have the opportunity to go home for lunch, I struggle finding food downtown that I want to eat. Luckily there are some vegetarian restaurants, gourmet and international cafes, and there are a few standby sandwich shops. These places are geared more towards cosmopolitan and international clients; they are not typical for Argentina, nor part of the traditional cuisine.
Despite my complaints, one thing I love about Argentina is the wide availability of inexpensive, fresh produce! I do the majority of my shopping at the fruit stand, only rarely going to grocery store for staples like milk, oil, yogurt, pasta and rice. An average trip to the verduleria (fruit stand) will render two plastic bags filled with oranges, bananas, bell peppers, carrots, zucchinis, etc and cost around 15 pesos (less that $4USD). Within a two-block radius of my house there are at least 5 verdulerias.
Since whole foods have a shorter shelf life, I visit the verdulera a few times a week. I remember how luxurious and expensive the produce sections were in Seattle grocery stores. The States really has made eating naturally a luxury, but luckily in Argentina, eating healthfully and naturally is the cheapest option.
From what I have experienced, Argentines eat a lot of sugar, white bread, meat and cheese. Like the French food paradox, it is hard to understand how Argentines eat the things they do without becoming fat. Although the population is generally thinner here, I hesitate to associate that with health, and tend to consider some of it to be due to malnutrition. People smoke, and Argentina is the nation with the second highest rate of eating disorders. Many (especially men) will deny this and argue for a genetic predisposition for thin bodies and resilience to fattening food, which is partially valid. But walking around the streets in Buenos Aires it isn’t uncommon to see women who appear to have been suffering from anorexia for a decade or more. They look sickly, but there is a lot of pressure to be thin in this city.
In general during meals Argentines do not mix food. The notion of a ‘balanced meal’ including different food groups is non-existent. Typically meat served with a vegetable and pasta by itself. I think not mixing food is how Argentines digest such large amounts hard-to-digest foods, like steak. Drinkable yogurt is very popular here; many people drink it everyday for the pro-biotics and easier digestion.
In Buenos Aires I not only changed what I ate, but how and when I ate. Meals are structured very differently. Argentines do not eat a substantial breakfast. Coffee and a croissant is a typical breakfat. Lunch is served later in the day. Noon, called ‘mediodia’ refers to 1pm, not 12. At 5pm Argentines eat a ‘merienda’ or snack/tea. What is eaten during merienda greatly varies but can include coffee and pastries, yogurt, crackers, or a sandwich. Dinner is not eaten until after 9pm. On the weekends it is common to not eat until 11pm. You can imagine what a huge upset this would be to a system used to eating its last meal around 7pm. Dinner is eaten slowly. When dining out it isn’t uncommon to spend three or more hours at the restaurant. This late dinner explains the lack of breakfast; hunger is absent upon waking up because the body is still digesting last night’s steak dinner.
Please suspend judgment and forget your preconceived and very American ideas about nutrition when reading the food pages. Argentina has strict culinary traditions, and to eat in a typical American style is almost impossible in Buenos Aires. Posts can be found in the blogroll on the front page, or in the category ‘comida y la vida’.