For us, one of the highlights of travel is sampling the local foods. Food reveals a lot about a country; the spices and ingredients tell you about the climate and agriculture and the culinary rituals provide a glimpse into a country’s soul. While spending the last two months in Argentina we eagerly familiarized ourselves with the cuisine and culinary customs. The tradition surrounding food in Argentina is special and unique. The culture thrives on social interaction and connecting with others over food and drink. Consequently, the customs affiliated with asado, maté, and café are as significant socially as they are gastronomically.
With substantial European heritage, Argentine food is influenced by Spanish, Italian, and German cuisine. You can find pizza or pasta on almost every menu. In Buenos Aires, the bustling capital city, you will certainly find culinary diversity but when it comes to food Argentinian’s have a strong preference for their familiar favorites. Many of which are very rich or muy rico, as the locals say, leaving me ready for an afternoon siesta. This isn’t too surprising considering that, in Argentina, beef reigns supreme, white bread ranks second, and the ubiquitous ham-and-cheese duo is a close third. Let’s just say that I’ve had enough ham, cheese, mayo and white bread sandwiches for a lifetime.
Despite the rich foods, Argentine’s typically don’t over-indulge. They linger over meals and generally subscribe to a slower pace of life. A meal is a commitment; one shows up fully present, ready to eat, socialize, and enjoy. Full attention is devoted to the food and company during meal times. These leisurely daily meals consist of a light breakfast, moderate sized lunch, merienda (a pre-dinner coffee + snack), and a late dinner; think 9pm or later. We were invited to one asado where dinner was served until 12am.
While I admire the food culture in Argentina, I find myself at odds with the eating habits. The small sugary breakfast, though tasty, sets me up for an early afternoon crash and going to bed with a full stomach, after a late dinner, certainly doesn’t benefit digestion. That said, I’ve come to love some foods, scorn others, and have remained loyal to my beloved dessert through it all. Fortunately for me, Argentine’s love sweets as much as I do. Seldom will you find a block without a panadería (pan=bread), or bakery. I called these bakeries panda-rias for longer than I’d like to admit….which I assume is a store where one buys pandas.
The Foods We Found in Argentina
Medialuna translates to “half moon” these crescent pastries can be served salty or sweet. Paired with orange juice and coffee, this is the breakfast of choice for many an Argentine. Sometimes filled with ham and cheese because in Argentina ham and cheese makes everything better.
Bizzchotos buttery, flaky, layered breakfast biscuits. Have it with coffee and call it breakfast.
Sandwich de Miga crustless white bread sandwich typically filled with ham and cheese. One thin slice of ham, one thin slice of cheese, a layer of mayo- call it a sandwich. Consider yourself lucky if you spot one on “pan integral,” or wholewheat bread. Not too many textures at play here, just a soft sandwich that’ll lodge itself to the roof of your mouth upon first bite.
Dulce de Leche the milkier cousin of caramel. It’s a sweet spread found in desserts and pastries. You can dunk all sorts of stuff in this confection- crackers, apples, bread- trust me, I’ve tried it all. A swipe of dulce de leche truly makes everything better.
Chipa absurdly delicious cheesy dough balls. An ideal on-the-go snack. The perfect stretchy consistency when you take a bite. Unexpectedly gluten free and made with cassava flour. Highly tasty. Highly addictive. It’s not possible to only have one.
Alfajores buttery shortbread cookies sandwiched together. Traditionally dulce de leche is the “glue.” Freshly made at bakeries or mass produced, dipped in chocolate and sold at kioscos- they’re a highly popular and ever-present sweet treat. You can find them with other fillings like fruit or chocolate. Stick with the simple ones, they really let the dulce de leche shine.
Dulce de Membrillo in Argentina the double l is pronounced “sh” so, mem-bri-sho. Dulce de membrillo is made from quince and the similar tasting dulce de batata is made from sweet potato. Both are a firm jelly-like paste. Exceptional when paired with cheese.
Pasta Frolla a tasty tart or pie filled with dulce de membrillo, quince jam. Crispy crust + sweet filling = yum.
Tostado a few simple slices of white toast is a common breakfast choice. Served with butter and jam or sandwich style filled with ham and cheese.
Coffee Culture is strong in Argentina and there’s certainly no shortage of cafés. Stop by any time of day for a cafe con leche (half coffee, half milk) or cortado (expresso cut with a little milk) and feel free to linger for hours. You’ll always find a good deal on “promo.”
Café a shot of espresso in a teeny tiny little cup paired with a teeny tiny shot of water ‘con gas’ or juice. If you order a coffee without specifying any details, this is what you’ll receive. Argentines know how savor these minuscule cups as they sit, sip and chat for hours.
Mate it’s more than a drink, it’s a social ritual. Dried yerba mate leaves are steeped in a gourd shaped cup (sometimes made from a real gourd) and filtered through a straw called a bombilla. Mate is so ubiquitous that you’ll see people on the street with their mate cup in one hand and thermos of hot water tucked under their arm. On it’s own, mate is bitter. A rare few prefer it with sugar. Preparation requires skill; you need to consider the water temperature, the angle of the mate in the cup, the angle of the straw, and the way the water is poured. Mate is shared with friends, family and acquaintances. Consider yourself “accepted” if asked to share a round of mate. The full cup is drank in its entirety by one person and then refilled and passed to the next person. There are some rules associated with the mate sharing ritual. An important one: don’t touch the bombilla. That’s a real rookie mistake. To learn more about mate, click here.
Facturas step into any panaderia and you will find dozens of inviting facturas, or pastries. Usually very sweet, sometimes filled with dulche de leche. For mirenda enjoy a coffee with these treats.
Milanesa similar to schnitzel. Chicken, steak or veal cut thin, breaded and pan fried. Aka chicken parm sans cheese and sauce. Served with a squeeze of lemon on a plate with fries or inside a sandwich.
Morcilla blood sausage. An asado staple. I can’t comment further as I wasn’t daring enough to give it a try…
Asado this is not a barbecue, it’s an art form. The asador, the person manning the grill, tends to the meat and restocks the smoldering embers with meticulous devotion. The meat sets the pace for the evening as it’s served in courses when it’s ready. The meat is cooked low and slow for hours. The best cuts of meat are saved for last. While the meat is the star of the show, the social element is just as important. Everyone chats and snacks on picadas and wine while awaiting each course. To learn more about asado, click here.
Choripan not to be confused with a lowly street-side pancho or hotdog; this is a hulking grilled chorizo sausage, dripping with juices, and served on crusty baguette with all sorts of toppings. To find it, follow your nose to the source of the tantalizing smells on street corners, in parks, and at festivals.
Empanadas the omnipresent grab and go snack. Served baked or fried with a variety of fillings, including chicken, beef, corn, and ham and cheese. It’s a cheap and quick meal replacement. Always on a desperate search for vegetables the ‘verdura’ empanada quickly became our favorite. It’s super taste and filled with spinach or Swiss chard.
Chimichurri a garlicy sauce with olive oil and parsley. It’s used as a condiment for grilled meats. Don’t expect it to be hot or spicy. Argentine’s are adverse to food with a kick.
Lomo beef fillet or tenderloin. The leanest of the land.
Pizza expressing how I really feel about the Argentinian pizza is bound to offend a few Argentines, but the pizza is woefully unappetizing in appearance. Honestly, looking at it makes me sad. A (usually) precooked, thick, bulky crust is coated by a blanket of flavorless cheese, suffocating any traces of sauce. Always a strange splatter of olives tossed on as an after thought. This may not be a fair representation…I am biased because my preference is for Neapolitan style pizza.
Proveleta crispy and golden brown on the outside, gooey and stretchy on the inside. Proveleta is cheese that’s topped with herbs and spices and baked or grilled until irresistibly bubbly. Just writing about it makes my mouth water. It’s also a reliable vegetarian option at an asado.
Fainá a flatbread made with chickpea flour. Another trusty vegetarian option. Fainá is served atop a slice of pizza or eaten on it’s own. It has a moist consistency and pleasant, subtle flavor.
Papas Fritas french fries are the most popular side dish and frequently accompany meat entrees. Mayonnaise is the dip of choice.
Tarta similar to a quiche, it’s a savory a lunch pie. Usually made with eggs and cheese and filled with different types of vegetables or ham.
Malbec Argentina produces more of this variety of wine than anywhere else in the world. The Malbec grapes are predominantly grown in the foothills of the Andes Mountains in the Mendoza province. Though Malbec translates to “bad beak” or “bad nose,” it’s anything but bad. Argentina has given the world a real gift with its Malbec. Read about Argentina’s wine region here.