A Critical review of the food in Argentina

21 Marzo 2009

It's a mixed bag.

The meat is incredible, as I have mentioned. The beef and sausage here can't be beat.
Also incredible are the tomatoes. In USA tomatoes taste like water. Here they are extremely flavorful. I am wont to eat three or four tomatoes strait from the fridge as if they were apples.
But looking at the overall picture, I'd say the food here is not as good as in New Jersey.

There's a lot of repetition. Argentines don't like to experiment with new dishes. Once you've tasted one asado (barbecue), you've tasted them all. There's a lot of disappointing plain bread with plain cheese, and plain spaghetti with plain cheese. Sandwiches are eaten very frequently, and usually consist of nothing except bread, a thin slice of ham, and a thin slice of cheese. Nothing is spicy. Nothing.
There is certainly a lack (for better or for worse) of "gourmet" food. More popular are food that don't involve forks; hotdogs and pizza. The pizza I don't dig too much - maybe just because I'm so used to NY/NJ pizza. Pizza here is made without mozzarella cheese (I don't know the name of the cheese they use), and too little tomato sauce.
Mediocre foods include empanadas (not as good as colombian empanadas, and never spicy) and tartas (pies sort of like a quiche - cheese, egg, onion, corn, etc.). Apples are mushy, and there's not enough variety of fruit.

Of course there are exceptions to the mediocre-food rule. For example, Lomito (a regional special) is one of the best sandwiches I have ever tasted. Lomito is similar to a burger. Two toasted pieces of bread, meat (lomo), lettuce, tomato, cheese, mayo, and fried egg. Egg on a burger sounds weird I know, but trust me it is delicious. If you are vegetarian in Argentina you will suffer. If you're vegan you'll die.
Another exception: A friend of my host mother, a woman named Adriana, invites me to eat with her and her elderly friends on Thursday nights. We all gather at a nice summer house in la quebrada ('the gorge' - an area near the mountains where the weather is cooler and the town is quieter) and Adrinana's elderly lady friends cook for everyone. One night they cooked pizza. I was upset, because I was expecting the usual lousy Riojano pizza. But their pizza transcends the standards of La Rioja and even of New York. The pizza came to the table with onion and tomato, another with egg, olive, and oil, another with sausages and a medley of herbs. The cuisine was accompanied by fine red wine and black beer, and afterwards we enjoyed a elegant fruit pastry with cream.
Those ladies can cook. No matter what plans I have on Thursday night, I cancel them to go eat at la quebrada.

About the sweets I can actually say "It's not better, it's not worse, it's just different." The operative difference is dulce de leche. Yes, the same dulce de leche you learned about in Spanish class. It's a sweet paste with a consistency between nutella and grape jelly, and a flavor that's just.... sweet. It's pretty good, if not a bit too sweet for my liking. Oreos here have a dulce de leche center. Cakes have dulce de leche fillings (and frostings). Icecream tubs come in "chocolate, vanilla, and dulce de leche." If you like the flavor of dulce de leche, you will be happy in Argentina. Right now Mauricio (my host brother, 17-years-old) is constructing a layered cake of chocolate cookies dunked in coffee and dulce de leche.
People rave about the alfajor, but I'm not a big fan. Alfajor a cookie-dulce de leche sandwich that's famously Argentine. All I can say is, "...Eh."

Overall, I miss the food from home more than I enjoy the food here.
Now I will lament things I miss most: peanut butter, Chinese food, Indian food, Vietnamese food, Japanese food, Mexican food, Thai food, Indonesian food, sweet potatoes, chocolate, soymilk, cliff bars, M&Ms, tabasco sauce, any fish or seafood, salsa (yes, I'm in Latin America and I miss salsa. There's none here), breakfast cereal, and of course, my mother's cooking (well... some of my mother´s cooking anyway).

I'll eat double asado for the sake of everyone in my country. For me, you guys enjoy the many flavors of USA that don't exist here.


The little things

This post is kind of long. If you don't like reading a lot, you won't like this post.


There's something very charming about a country that's not fully developed. The easiest example I can think of is the gym. In Morristown, the gym is clean, spacious, carpeted, and all the weights have comfortable rubber grips. In La Rioja there are wights all over the floor, sweaty young people have to squeeze by each-other on the staircase, and there are no cushiony blue mats for situps. The dusty wood floor is all dented and scratched, and the equipment is rusty and requires some strength to just set up. Isn't that how a gym is supposed to be? If I were making a film that involved a gym, I would definitely use the gym in La Rioja over the gym in Morristown.

The little differences present themselves everywhere. At the kiosko (corner deli) you can buy a snack worth 3 pesos, pay 2, and bring the final peso mañana. And it's not something that you only do once because you forgot your wallet at home. You just go to the store with the two pesos because it's easier than going upstairs to get the third peso out of your wallet. Could you do that in USA? The nametagged employee would probably give you a hard time. But in La Rioja the employee is not some anonymous face- he or she is a friend that knows your name and asks how things are going.

All the drinks come in 3L glass bottles, not plastic. I even bought a glass bottle of gatorade, sabor a manzana (apple flavor - something I never saw in the states). When buying a drink, no one buys a drink for himself. A group of three or four share one big bottle of soda, and split the tab. If you buy a drink for yourself only, other people will drink it anyway.

Every public building isn't air conditioned. Instead, they keep the doors open and fan on overhead, and the clerk wears a T-shirt. You don't see pristine glass windows on every corner, but rather blotchy glass and smudged walls. The lettering on windows or storefronts isn't elegantly printed or engraved, but stenciled in with paint. There is graffiti everywhere, even on the inside of my drawer at home.

The roads and sidewalks aren't designed for maximum transit efficiency. Houses run right up to the edge of the street, and the streets are only wide enough for one-way traffic. Any given street has an uneven apperance, because fancy elegant villas stand right next to broken-down shanties. The mix is somehow refreshing. The town doesn't look like it was bottled and packed by McDonald's, with everything modernized and pasteurized.

Clean modern SUVs will follow rusty little jalopies, and once in a while you see a farmer's truck that looks like it was made in the 1930s. The roads don't discriminate. Every car, weather a sputtering farm vehicle or a ferrari, drives on the same street. Cars share the road with motorcycles, which are much more numerous and show just as great a variety in quality and age. You also see four-wheel motorized ATVs on the streets. Motorcycles are the vehicle of choice because they are cheaper, easier to park, cooler in the hot weather, and capable of driving on dirt paths that cars can't access.

Vehicles don't follow modern standards of safety. If the cars have seatbelts, no one wears them. You see a helmet on a cyclist only once in a while. Some streets do have traffic lights, but most leave the decision to the driver when to stop and go. I am amazed I haven't seen a car crash yet. On a street only 100ft. long, drivers will switch gears rapidly to try to hit 60mph before the next intersection. Pedestrians are just as reckless, racing to cross the street between two speeding cars. All the while motorcycles are weaving through traffic, ignoring stoplights completely. The vehicles are like people: impatient, pushy, selfish, and disobedient. If it looks drivable, then it is driven on. It's not like the USA where cars, at least to some extent, are quelled into speed limits and fettered to double yellow lines.

There really is no police force that could regulate the traffic, or anything else. Police exist, but they are like the teachers at the high schools; they don't do anything. With no vigilant eye of the law upon them kids go ahead and get drunk in the streets at night, accompanied by whatever elicit activity/substance suits their fancy. No one stops by the house to turn down the stereo at 4:00AM, so throughout the Friday and Saturday night music is blasting at every corner.

Something about this place feels more organic than a modern American city. Yet the feeling isn't Latin American, it is distinctly European. The central plaza is filled with stone and bronze statues, and covered with shady trees. Cafés fill the sidewalks with quaint tables umbrellas. You see a lot of classical architecture with concrete and arches and pillars, and huge stone cathedrals tower over all.

The streets and the buildings are really magical. And I mean it, they're really have a magical touch about them. But the town itself is 1%. It's the people here and the attitudes that make the experience. For all it's worth, and it's worth a lot, I'd say the town is 1% of the magic.

A view from the top floor of the gym.
More photos pending.


La Chaya


Sand, flour, mud, meat, paint, and wine.
What more could you need?

On my first day in La Rioja, Argentina - Sunday March 1 - I got to experienced the deadly combination of the six substances listed above. The chaos is called La Chaya and it happens only in La Rioja.

Actually, it's not accurate to associate meat with La Chaya, because there's meat everywhere. Just a few hours after I arrived in my new Argentine home I was at a table covered with heaping plates of beef and sausage. (Every Sunday Argentines eat asado - a sort of barbecue on steroids. Some 20 family members and friends come over to eat and chat for the entire afternoon). Anyway, I stuffed my face with the best meat I ever tasted and then fell asleep instantly, as is the Argentine custom. When I woke up - or rather when some friends dragged me out of bed - we went into the streets for the Chaya.

The Chaya is a summer festival that lasts most of February. People gather in the streets armed with garden hoses, buckets of water, sand, paint, handfuls of mud, and flour, and something like a food fight ensues. In less than 30 seconds you will be filthy, but so is everyone else so it doesn't matter. Everyone drinks heartily and you can just walk up to any stranger holding a big cup of wine to have a sip. Big grills on the sidewalk are cooking up cow heads. I actually ate brain of cow on bread. Either huge speakers or live bands will fill the streets with folklore - fun upbeat guitar music. Admittedly, I couldn't understand half of what was said to me, but I had a damn good time.

Oh yeah, at dusk they blow up scarecrows. Like, they actually blow them up with explosives.

after la chaya

. . . . . asado

On the bus

8:05PM (20:05Hs)
Its true what they said about Argentine busses (or colectivos): better than first class on the airplane. I have a huge leather seat, plenty of leg room, curtains like old trains in the movies, and a knit red blanket to keep me warm. I'll be on this bus for the next 13 hours as I travel from Buenos Aires to my destination city La Rioja, so I guess I'll take some time to reflect on my first few days in Buenos Aires.

In three words: warm, beautiful, welcoming. Warm refers to the weather. Beautiful refers to the people and the weather. Welcoming refers to the attitudes, the people, and the weather. A warm beautiful welcoming bus attendant just gave me a candy.
When plane actually landed in Buenos Aires, the first chunk of hours was spent with Americans and other international students. Let me glaze over that and skip ahead to meeting the argentinos. You have to envision this location: an old catholic convento with marble staircases, huge open courtyards, and majestic stone arches (This is where we had our "orientation." How AFS managed to reserve this location, I don't know). Every room and hallway was immaculately clean. Every second felt like being in a movie, or a dream. In one of these courtyards is where I sit down with some of the AFS Argentina volunteers. The first thing I notice is a variety of skin tones and a strong accent. They are chatting with each-other about the diversity of kids in the program (Thai, German, New Zealand, Austrian, Japanese, Norwegian, Swiss, and US). As soon as I sit down they invite me into the conversation; me with in messy Spanish. They make fun of my pronunciation slapping me on the back, and throw back some words in messy English. In less than 15 seconds I am sharing mate with them (a bitter herbal tea, drunk through a silver straw called a 'bombilla') and joking about the monks walking around the other side of the courtyard. What's notable here is that even though they hardly knew me, they were treating me like an old friend. I never felt the division between their being staff and my being student.
And that's apparently the culture of Argentina, they explained to us at the orientation. Argentines are friendly to everyone. You can stop by at a friends house uninvited at 4:00 in the afternoon, and you will be welcomed in, fed, given mate and wind up spending the whole evening there. People do it all the time and no one questions it.

Now to list some details you might find interesting. Busses seem to be the major transit system, and the BsAs bus station is comparable to NY Penn Station. Out my window I just saw a guy poking at a bonfire right by the side of the road. Dinner is served between 21:00-22:00 (9 and 10 pm) and the earliest, and breakfast is a measly piece of bread in the morning. People kiss on the cheeks like in France, and talk over each-other at the table like Italians. They say che as in Che Guevara. The accent is ridiculous. Lluvia turns into shuvia and La Rioja turns into La Shrioja. Oh, and they just decided to make a verb form that doesn't exist ('vos').

That's just about I have to say about Argentina so far. It's about 9:30 now. If you'll excuse me, I'm off to play Doom for 11 1/2 hours.

el convento
el colectivo



To my loyal readers (all four or five of you):
I have more stories to post, but I can´t publish them until I can connect my laptop to the internet. Supposedly there are some wifi hotspots in downtown La Rioja, so I´ll have more posts up soon!