Argentina Feature

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Flavors of Argentina

Read between the lines of Argentina's menus and you get a lesson in its geographical vastness and history of culture clashes. The country's food traditions combine wild foods native to the region with crops cultivated from pre-Columbian times. Added to these are foods and techniques brought by the European colonizers: first the wheat and cattle that built the country's reputation as the granary—and slaughterhouse—of the world; then the wines, pastas, and ice-creams brought by 20th-century immigrants from Spain and Italy.

Compared to other Latin American fare, some accuse Argentinean cuisine of blandness. And while there are parts of the country that love their spices, the local food philosophy is more about letting top-notch ingredients speak for themselves. Here are some of the flavors that might cross your plate.

Beef

Admit it: a juicy steak comes to mind when you think of Argentina.Locals proudly boast that the grass-fed cattle of the pampas produce the world's tastiest beef. Their eating habits pay testimony to this: Argentina's inhabitants consume more beef per capita than any other nation on earth (about 65 kg per year, compared to 44 kg in the U.S.) This is partly because beef prices are extremely low by international standards, allowing people to eat beef several times a week, if not daily.Sunday asados (barbecues) are a sacred national ritual. Whether they're grilling in the garden or ordering a parrillada (mixed grill) at a restaurant, Argentineans typically go for at least two cuts of beef, one on the bone and one off. Tira de asado (prime ribs) and vacío (flank steak) are the standard selections, and are usually slow-roasted in huge pieces weighing 5–10 lbs. Choicer cuts like bife de chorizo (rump) or lomo (tenderloin) are more likely to be cooked and ordered as individual steaks.

The preludes to the meat itself usually include chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage) and a selection of grilled offal: crispy curls of chinchulines (chitterlings) and rich mollejas (sweetbreads) are especially popular.

Cow culture doesn't end at the barbecue. Mildly spiced ground or sliced beef is the most traditional filling for empanadas (a pastry turnover), the country's star snack. Another homey local favorite is the milanesa, a plate-sized breaded beef cutlet that might be served with fries or a salad, in a sandwich, or even topped with tomato sauce and melted cheese (a la napolitana). Other beef-centered classics include bifes a la criolla, thin slices of steak cooked with onions and red peppers; and carbonada, a rich beef stew containing corn and dried peaches.

Andean Ingredients

Arguably the most unusual flavors in Argentina come from the pre-Columbian food traditions of Salta and Jujuy, in the northwest of Argentina.

Maize is the backbone of Andean fare and comes in an impressive range of sizes and colors. The most ubiquitous corn-based dishes are humitas and tamales, fist-sized balls of maize meal stuffed with cheese or ground beef, respectively, and steamed in corn husks. Sweet corn spiced and mixed with goat's cheese is also a popular filling for the area's tiny but incredibly moreish empanadas. Large, nutty-tasting ears of rehydrated dried white maize are popular additions to salads and stews. You can even drink maize: it's fermented into a dangerously powerful alcoholic beverage called chicha. Bucketfuls of the soupy-looking concoction fuel the action during the long nights of carnaval, Pachamama, and other traditional festivals.

The Andes are the spiritual home of the potato. Forget big fluffy brown spuds: Andean potato varieties (of which there are scores) are tiny, dense, and might be purple, crimson, green, or rich yellow. Fresh, they're a common side dish, and form part of spicy stews. However,Traditionally, they're preserved by leaving them to freeze outside and then dehydrating them. The resulting starchy balls (or a flour ground from them) are known as chuño and are a common addition to soups and stews.

Once a staple of the Incas, quinoa continues to grow in these parts. This nutty, protein-rich grain was traditionally incorporated into stews, but these days it's just as common to find it served as a risotto. Llama steak is more fibrous than beef and has a sweet, gamey edge to it. Charqui (the local word for jerky or dried salted meat) is also commonplace in stews. At dessert, don't pass up a plate of quesillo (raw goat cheese or stringy fresh white cheese) with dulce de cayote (a sweet cactus preserve). It's usually served with a handful of nuts and dribbled with arrope (a thick dark fruit syrup).

Patagonian Wild Foods

In the southern half of Argentina, the cow plays second fiddle to wilder fare. The star catch along the Atlantic coast is centolla or king crab, but mussels, clams, octopus, and shrimp are also regional specialties, as are freshly caught sole, salmon, hake, cod, or silverside. Fish is on the menu in Andean Patagonia, too, which is famous for its wild-river trout. Avoid the cheesy sauces local chefs favor and go for a something simple that lets you appreciate the star ingredient—manteca negra (browned butter) is a fail-safe choice.

If you're feeling game, jabalí (wild boar), ciervo colorado (red deer), and liebre (hare) are the land-lubbing southern specialties. They're usually served roasted or in stews, often accompanied by sauces made from berries or artisanal beer (or even berry-flavored beer), some of the other products Patagonia is famous for.

Best of all, you can take it all away with you. Boar, venison, hare, trout, and seafood are sold pickled and canned (a product known as escabeche), and there's a roaring trade in homemade jams and jellies concocted from rosa mosqueta (rosehip), guinda (morello cherries), and all manner of berries.

Dulce de leche

Milk, sugar, and not a whole lot else go into this gloopy brown milk caramel, which is practically a food group in Argentina. Get your first hit each day by spreading some on your toast at breakfast. where you may also find dulce de leche oozing out of cylindrical millefeuille pastries known as cañoncitos (little cannons) or long ridged donuts called churros. Mid-morning you might encounter it sandwiched between two cookies to form an alfajor, the nation's favorite sweet snack.

Dulce de leche is a standard flavor for ice cream; you'll also find chocolate-chip dulce de leche, or dulce de leche with swirls of—you guessed it—extra dulce de leche. Diners think nothing of asking for a dollop of dulce de leche on the side of already sugar-laden desserts like flan (crème caramel) or flambéed pancakes. Sickly sweet chocolate cakes filled with dulce de leche are a common fixture in bakery windows. And bananas and dulce de leche are a killer combination: imitate local kids and mash the two together for an instant sugar fix.

All the same, connoisseurs insist that the best way to appreciate the stuff is on a spoon straight from the pot. Why not line up some jars of well-known brands like La Salamandra, Chimbote, and Havanna, and do a dulce de leche tasting of your own?

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