I’ve been in Argentina for all of two and a half weeks, so I now feel qualified to write with authority on culinary matters. As I’m a person of simple tastes, I’ve narrowed down the cuisine and beverages of a massive country (most of which I haven’t yet been to) into seven basic food and drink groups, and ranked them in order of importance – para mi, por supuesto (in my opinion, of course).
Everyone will tell you about the steak in Argentina, so I don’t need to say too much about it, except that the reports are true: it really is Very Good Indeed. Apparently the most popular kind of steak is something called Bife de Chorizo, but I haven’t been eating in restaurants. Instead I’ve been going to the butcher’s stand in supermarkets and pointing at big hunks of beef while making frying pan motions with accompanying ‘pffft pffft’ sound effects. The results have been fantastic every time. Steak costs about the same here as in South Africa, only it’s much, much better.
2. Dulce de Leche
Apparently Argentinians consume the most sugar per capita in the world. This is something someone told me in a pub in Buenos Aires, but, judging by the number of kilograms of sugar every person I’ve queued behind at a grocery store here has had in their trolleys, there’s either some national sugar stockpiling going on, or Argentinians really do have a thing for the white stuff.
Further proof of this is the nation’s love of something called dulce de leche. (Whatever you do, don’t call it caramel, although it is very similar.) Argentinians generally have a tub of it in their fridges, the same way you or I might have a tub of yoghurt or cottage cheese in ours. They spread it on toast, put it on bananas or spoon it straight from the tub.
They also put dulce de leche between soft biscuits and cover them in chocolate to create my all-time favourite super-sweet treat: alfajores. Since I’ve been here, I’ve eaten about three kilograms of alfajores in a quest to find the very best. You get cheapo supermarket ones (which cost around R7 each) and fancy chocolateria alfajores (which are more than twice the price). So far, the best alfajore I’ve had was from a chocolate shop in Bariloche called Rapa Nui.
While everyone will tell you about the meat in Argentina, nobody told me about the ice-cream until I got here. There are ice-cream shops everywhere, all of them boasting ‘Helados Artesanales’ and all of them offering an intoxicating range of flavours, usually grouped into categories: ‘Chocolate’ (all possible varieties of this), ‘Dulce de Leche’ (naturally they have loads of versions of this), ‘Cremas’ and ‘Fruta’.
Some of the heladerias, unfortunately, are quite expensive (R25 a scoop is pushing it, in my opinion), but there are some excellent and cheap ice-cream parlours, such as the one around the corner from Mi Casa en BA, which does two scoops in a suggestively shaped cone for R10. My advice: Always order at least one scoop of dulce de leche flavour, preferably with chocolate and/or nuts in it. Another tip, if you want to act like a local, is to buy your ice-cream in 1/4, 1/2 or entire kilos. Argentinians don’t bother with silly little scoops.
4. Chori Pan
Move over the humble, unsatisfying hot dog! Chori Pan is the saviour of the hungry, cash-strapped multitudes here. Similar to a South African boerie roll, only a tad more spicy and with a slightly thicker sausage, this is the staple street food in Argentina. In Bariloche, there’s a man called Polo who has a grill next to the main bus stop in the town centre. A$10 (R20) gets you Argentina’s best Chori Pan. (Polo also sells Hamburgesas and steak rolls. I haven’t had a steak roll yet because I can’t remember what they’re called in Spanish.)
Forget coffee. Mate is how Argentinians consume caffeine. This somewhat unlikely beverage consists of yerba (a green herb that looks like mown grass mixed with chopped hay) drunk out of a roundish mug, called a mate, through a metal straw, called a bombilla (pronounced bombisha, because this is Argentina). There are all sorts of traditions and customs around mate, which make it something quintessentially Argentinian. In most households, instead of dirty coffee cups, you will find a mate thermos and little pots of green gunk strewn around.
For some reason that nobody has yet managed to explain, mate tastes okay when you drink it in Argentina, but completely horrible anywhere else in the world.
If you must drink coffee, you’ll either end up buying strange, strong muddy stuff roasted with malted sugar from the supermarket, or paying a hefty price for it in coffee shops (about ZAR40 is standard). Don’t expect to find a decent latte or a flat white. Cappuccino is your safest bet if you want anything other than a lethal shot of espresso.
I heard much more about the wines in Chile than the wine in Argentina before I left, which left me a bit worried about this part of the trip, but I’m happy to assure you of two very important things: 1. They make good wine in Argentina, and 2. It’s cheap.
If, like me, you drink a fair to slightly embarrassing amount of wine, you’ll be happy to know that it’s perfectly possible to pick up a decent bottle of red for about A$15 (ZAR30) in a supermarket. I can recommend the Malbec, any Malbec. It’s all good. Another famous local cultivar I want to try is Torrentés – but it needs to warm up a bit in Bariloche before I switch to white wine.
Again, Argentina may not be famed for beer, but it certainly does have plenty of it. Besides the large national and international labels, there is also a healthy micro-brewery industry here. Bariloche alone boasts about 15 micro-breweries (or so someone who runs a pub here told me). Unfortunately, most of the pubs I’ve been to in Buenos Aires and Bariloche (my entire range of experience in Argentina so far) seem a bit overpriced in the beer department, but 1-litre bottles of Quilmes are only about R20 at the supermarket – provided you return the glass bottle to claim your deposit.
How could I forget these? Like Chori Pan, they’re the fast, cheap solution to hunger. They also come in a wide variety of flavours that I have yet to explore thoroughly, but I’ve been told I should request the (apparently quite rare) ones with curried beef and raisins, which sound a bit like boboti empanadas to me. I’ll let you know if I find them.