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Back Issues
2012 - Summer Issue
¡Comidas Sabrosas!
World Cuisine
Article: James Fisher
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Beef and wine. That's what I was searching for when I arrived in Argentina. I had been camping on the Alto Plano for the last several weeks, dining on whatever I could boil in a single camping pot. All I wanted was a steak, fresh off of the parilla, and a bottle of the local Malbec. A shower would have been nice too. I stopped at the only hospedaje on a lonely road with row after row of grapes on either side. Distances are vast in this region and I learned to stop when the opportunity presented itself.

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Photos 2, 4a, and 6
by James Fisher

5411 N Mesa St.
El Paso, TX 79912
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Cuartito Azul
500 Thorn Ave.
El Paso, TX 79912
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The open space of the Pampas, South America's fertile lowlands, has had as much influence on the gastronomy in Argentina as European immigration and the traditions of native South American tribes. The hospedaje, reminiscent of a 19th century Argentinean estancia, had an area to stable horses (my motorcycle in this instance), rooms to let and a pulpería. In the time when gauchos roamed the Pampas, the pulperias acted as stops to rest, drink and socialize. One could compare them to saloons in the Wild West, but with distinct gaucho traditions. The clerks and fare were protected from the drunk and carousing by heavily reinforced wood and iron bars. All the necessities for living on the Pampas were for sale, along with luxuries that one could not take on the road. Today, pulperías are not nearly so wild, but still offer a look into Argentinean history and serve as a place to gather.

The family that operated the hospedaje was gathered around the parilla, drinking wine and celebrating when I arrived. The main course was not ready yet, but a true asador (one who works the asado barbeque) always has something ready to eat. Typically, the first thing off the parilla is offal, or organ meats. Our asador offered blood sausages and sweetbreads, which some Argentineans prefer over the main course. I preferred the empanadas, pastries stuffed with meat, cheese, and egg. A local showed me how to distinguish what was in the empanada by how the dough was folded. Each filling has its own unique shape, but this varies by kitchen.

Argentinean cuisine was influenced at its earliest by native South American tribes and then later by waves of European immigrants. Spanish conquistadors brought wine grapes, cattle and Spanish cooking traditions. Those melded with native agriculture to produce stews and soups containing sweet potatoes, pumpkin and quinoa. Perhaps the most obvious influence that native South Americans brought forward is yerba mate, a leafy shrub used to make a traditional tea-like beverage. One can't help but notice Argentineans carrying a mate gourd acting as a cup and a thermos full of hot water in the crooks of their elbows. A single gourd of mate leaf can be refilled with hot water multiple times before tossing the leaves out. The cultural tradition of sharing mate can build friendships, if one can get used to the bitter taste.

The Spanish gifts to Argentina were wine and beef. Wine grapes were first brought to the region by the Jesuits in order to perform Catholic Mass. In the mid-19th century, Malbec grapes were introduced by a French agronomist. Argentina is one of the largest wine producers in the world, but only recently shifted its focus from quantity to quality. Today, Argentina has a prosperous and discerning wine culture.

Near the same time the first grapes were being turned to wine, cattle were introduced to the pampas. Cattle took to the vast plains and flourished, but with no organized ranches, most were wild. This gave rise to the gauchos who made their living by hunting wild cattle. Their image was a proud and incorruptible one that carried Argentinean national pride.

Later, there were waves of German, British and Arabic immigrants, though none left a mark like the Italians on Argentinean cuisine. Italians brought pastas, pizza, pastries and my personal favorite, helado. Helado of Argentina is slightly different than Italian gelato; it is softer and creamier – more Argentinean. It's not uncommon to see several heladería on one block in a city. Helado goes beyond a scoop or two of ice cream with chocolate syrup. It is an art. A typical dish may include several flavors, such as dulce de leche and Malbec, with fresh fruit and sweet pastries.

As the other guests and I waited on the main course from the asado, we sipped on wine and snacked on choripanes. These simple, but savory sandwiches are very popular as appetizers for asados or as snacks at soccer games. They are composed of chorizo on bread with chimichurri, a sauce made of olive oil, garlic, parsley, vinegar and sometimes, additional herbs. Finally, the moment I had been waiting for arrived—the main course. Our table, covered with stacks of ribs, steak and lamb, along with small bowls of chimichurri, once again secured the reputation of the Argentinean asado. I ate with the passion of a gaucho just in from a hard stint working the pampas. The wine didn't hurt either. ///
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