Argentine cuisine may be described as a cultural blending of Mediterranean influences (such as those created by Italian and Spanish populations) within the wide scope of livestock and agricultural products that are abundant in the country. Argentine annual consumption of beef has averaged 100 kg per capita, approaching 180 kg per capita during the 19th century; consumption averaged 67.7 kg in 2007. Beyond asado (the Argentine barbecue), no other dish more genuinely matches the national identity. Nevertheless, the country’s vast area, and its cultural diversity, have led to a local cuisine of various dishes.
Argentinian people have a reputation for their love of eating. Social gatherings are commonly centered around sharing a meal. Invitations to have dinner at home is generally viewed as a symbol of friendship, warmth, and integration. Sunday family dinner is considered the most significant meal of the week, whose highlights often include asado or pasta.
Another feature of Argentine cuisine is the preparation of homemade food such as french fries, patties, and pasta to celebrate a special occasion, to meet friends, or to honour someone. The tradition of locally preparing food is passed down from generation to generation, and homemade food is also seen as a way to show affection.
Argentinian restaurants include a great variety of cuisines, prices, and flavours. Large cities tend to host everything from high-end international cuisine, to bodegones (inexpensive traditional hidden taverns), less stylish restaurants, and bars and canteens offering a range of dishes at affordable prices.
History of Argentine cuisine
Native Indians lived in Argentina many years before the European explorers arrived. Members of an Indian tribe in the northern part of Argentina were farmers who grew squash, melons, and sweet potatoes. Spanish settlers came to Argentina in 1536. Between 1880 and 1890, nearly one million immigrants came from Europe to live in Argentina. Most were from Italy and Spain. The Italians introduced pizza, as well as a variety of pasta dishes, including spaghetti and lasagna. British, German, Jewish, and other immigrants also settled in Argentina, all bringing their styles of cooking and favourite foods with them. The British brought tea, starting the tradition of teatime. All of these cultures influenced the dishes of Argentina.
Typical foods in Argentine cuisine
Argentines are known for their high protein diet, particularly beef. Grilled meat from the asado (barbecue) is a staple, with steak and beef ribs especially common. Chorizo (pork sausage), morcilla (blood sausage), chinchulines (chitterlings), mollejas (sweetbread), and other parts of the animal are enjoyed. In Patagonia, lamb and chivito (goat) are eaten more frequently than beef. Whole lambs and goats can be seen on the asado. Chimichurri, a sauce of herbs, garlic and vinegar, is often used as an accompaniment. Unlike other preparations, Argentines do not include chilli in their version of chimichurri.
Breaded and fried meats — milanesas — are used as snacks, in sandwiches, or eaten warm with mashed potatoes — purée. Empanadas — small pastries of meat, cheese, sweet corn, and a hundred other fillings — are a common sight at parties and picnics, or as starters to a meal. A variation, the “empanada gallega” (Spanish empanada), is a big, round meat pie made most commonly with tuna and mackerel (“caballa” in Spanish). Vegetables and salads are also eaten by Argentines; tomatoes, onions, lettuce, eggplants, squashes, and zucchini are common side dishes.
Italian staples, such as pizza and pasta, are eaten as commonly as beef. Fideos, tallarines, ñoquis, ravioles, and canelones can be bought freshly made in many establishments in the larger cities. Italian-style ice cream is served in large parlours and even drive-through businesses.
In Chubut, the Welsh community is known for its teahouses, offering scones and torta galesa, which is rather like torta negra.
Sandwiches de miga are delicate sandwiches made with crustless buttered white bread, very thinly sliced cured meat, cheese, and lettuce. They are often purchased from entrepreneurial home cooks and consumed for a light evening meal.
A sweet paste, dulce de leche is another treasured national food, used to fill cakes and pancakes, spread over toasted bread for breakfast, or served with ice cream. Alfajores are shortbread cookies sandwiched together with dulce de leche or a fruit paste. The “policeman’s” or “truck driver’s” sweet is cheese with quince paste or dulce de membrillo. Dulce de batata is made of sweet potato/yam: this with cheese is the Martín Fierros sweet. Apples, pears, peaches, kiwifruits, avocados, and plums are major exports. A traditional drink of Argentina is an infusion called mate (in Spanish, mate, with the accent on the first syllable). The dried leaves and twigs of the yerba mate plant (Ilex paraguariensis) are placed in a small cup, also called mate, usually made from a gourd, but also from bone or horn. The drink is sipped through a metal or cane straw called a bombilla. Mate can be sweetened with sugar, or flavoured with aromatic herbs or dried orange peel to hide its bitter flavour. Hot water is poured into the gourd at near-boiling point so as to not burn the herb and spoil the flavour. At family or small social gatherings, one mate may be shared by the group, with the host preparing the mate to the preference of each guest. When one guest is finished, the mate is returned to the host, who will then prepare one for another guest. This is considered an important social ritual. Mate cocido is the same leaf, which rather than brewed is boiled and served, as coffee or tea, with milk or sugar to taste.
Other typical drinks include wine (occasionally mixed with carbonated water known as soda); tea and coffee are equally important. Quilmes is the national brand of pale lager, named after the town of Quilmes, Buenos Aires, where it was first produced.
Regional differences in Argentine cuisine
Argentine cuisine is heavily influenced by its European roots and has regional variations. Asado, dulce de leche, empanadas, and yerba mate are found throughout Argentina. In many parts of the country, food is prepared differently and different kinds of foods are made; this includes to a smaller degree food from pre-Columbian times, as in the Northwest.
Central region and las Pampas
For long periods, urban areas such as Buenos Aires, Rosario, and Córdoba welcomed European immigrants, including, above all, those of Italian and Spanish descent. Nevertheless, there was also a migratory flow of German, Swiss, and Middle-Eastern immigrants arriving in Argentina. Among the countless changes this melting pot brought was the enrichment of the culinary art. Dishes such as pasta, pizza, pucheros (stews), croquetas (fritters), sauces, embutidos (sausages), and chicken and meat courses brought a wider scope of options to daily menus. Furthermore, the bread-making, dessert, pastry, and dairy industries have achieved considerable development in this region.
The above mentioned dishes have developed a distinctively Argentine nuance. That is why, for example, Argentine pasta includes a wide variety of dishes ranging from spaghetti, fusiles (fusilli), ñoquis (gnocchi), ravioli, cintas (pasta ribbons), and lasagne to the Argentine-made sorrentinos, agnolottis, canelones (cannelloni), and fetuchines (fettuccine).
Pizza — made with very thin, and sometimes thick, high-rising dough, with or without cheese, cooked in the oven or a la piedra (on a stone oven), and stuffed with numerous ingredients -— is a dish which can be found in nearly every corner of the country. Buenos Aires, Rosario, and Córdoba also serve it with fainá, which is a chick pea-flour dough placed over the piece of pizza. People say that what makes the Argentine pizza unique is the blending of Italian and Spanish cultures. At the turn of the 19th century, immigrants from Naples and Genoa opened the first pizza bars, though Spanish residents subsequently owned most of the pizza businesses.
Argentine pastry, including Rogel (a cake of layers of hojaldre covered with meringue), Dulce de Leche, and regional variants of Alfajores (from Mar del Plata, Córdoba, Tucumán, among others).
Bread products are consumed all around the country. The deeply rooted bread, pastry, and dessert-making tradition derives from blending the above nationalities’ products. bakeries sell not only a wide scope of breads, cookies, and cakes, but also pastries. The latter resembles a sort of roll pastry whose main dough ingredient is either butter or fat and which may be simple or stuffed with dulce de leche, milk, jam, crema pastelera, or quince or apple jelly, among other fillings. The most popular type of pastry is said to be that of medialunas, based upon French croissants. Furthermore, sandwiches de miga are another type of bread products; they are made only with thin layers of white bread (generally referred to as crustless bread) and stuffed with food items ranging from ham and cheese to other more sophisticated combinations such as raw ham, tomatoes, olives, hard boiled eggs, tuna, lettuce, red pepper, and the like.
Desserts and sweets are usually stuffed or covered with dulce de leche. The latter can be eaten alone or on top of cakes, alfajores, panqueques (crepes), and pastries, or as a topping spread over flan. Chantilly cream is widely consumed and used in preparing sweets and desserts. Additionally, cakes, sponge cakes, and puddings are very popular dishes. Italian ice-creams in this region also achieved a significant degree of development by adding local flavours that somehow preserved the local spirit involved in their preparation.
Although asado is eaten all over the country, its origin may be traced back to the Pampas. It entails manifold types of meat, which are generally eaten as follows: achuras (offal, or the cow’s inner parts), morcilla (blood sausage), and sometimes also a provoleta (a piece of provolone cheese cooked on the grill with oregano) are eaten first. Then comes the choripán (a kind of spiced sausage made with pork or lamb and placed between two slices of bread), and lastly meat such as asado de tira, vacío (hindquarter), lomo (tenderloin), colita de cuadril (rump), matambre (rolled stuffed steak cut into slices and served cold), entraña (innards); the list is never-ending. It is quite common to eat and enjoy a dish known as cabrito al asador (roast kid or goat) in the province of Córdoba.
Northwest and Cuyo
This region is regarded as perhaps the one most influenced by native Indians, and its foods are closely linked to the Andean-Incan tradition. When preparing regional dishes, potatoes and corn or wheat are almost always used, including quinoa (a cereal typically used in Incan cuisine), peppers, squashes and tomatoes. The most celebrated dishes are humita and tamal, in which the corn husk is stuffed with the corn filling itself, seasonings or meat.
This region is the most suitable to taste empanadas, particularly those stuffed with meat and offering different types of tempting varieties such as the meat empanada, salteña also filled with potatoes, or the empanada tucumana, which is stuffed with matambre and cut with a knife, or empanadas made with cheese. Empanadas are closed savoury pastries which may be fried or baked in the oven and are generally eaten with the hands.
Stews such as locro, carbonada and cazuelas (casseroles) are also typical dishes characterising this region, which also include pumpkin or potato pudding stuffed with meat.
Many of the sweets produced in this region, such as quince, sweet potato, molasses and dulce de cayote jams, have given rise to a very well known and easily made dessert referred to as vigilante, or to so-called queso y dulce (where a piece of fresh cheese is served with one of the sweets mentioned above).
This is another area influenced by native Indians, particularly by the Guaraní tribe. Abounding in rivers and shores, it offers a wide diversity of fish species, such as dorado, pacú, surubi, boga and silverside.
Widely grown in this area, cassava is typically included in the region’s dishes, as are other components of meals, such as the chipá (a cassava and cheese bread), which originally came from Paraguay. Sopa Paraguaya and Chipá Guazu are also commonly eaten. As regards products made with sugar, Papaya (mamón in Argentine Spanish) jam is typical of the province of Corrientes.
The principal product of this region is certainly yerba mate. Consumed countrywide, this product features a peculiarity of its own in this area: it is not only prepared with hot water, but, driven by the region’s high temperatures, it is common to see it prepared with cold water as well, in which case the beverage is known as tereré.
Marine species such as salmon, spider crabs, squid and other shellfish and molluscs may be fished in this region’s shores. Furthermore, trout may be found in Patagonian rivers.
The diversity of red fruits grown in the area feature cherries, bilberries, strawberries, rose hips and elders, which are made into jams and marmalades.
The Northern and Central European settlements in this region have built up a large-scale production of chocolate and its by-products, thus rendering them quintessential products to the region. Viennese and German cuisine and pastries are also typically associated with this region.
Mutton and lamb, together with wild boar and venison tend to make up the region’s meat-based dishes. Also typical of southern region are smoked products, including salmon, stag, wild boar, and pheasant.
Patagonia has also been exposed to the profound influence of native Indian tribes, in particular, those of the Mapuches and the Araucanos. A typical dish prepared by the latter is the curanto (a term meaning “hot stone”). Its preparation involves digging a hole about 150 cm deep in the ground, within which incandescent stones are placed inside a bonfire. A bed of nalca or maqui leaves is arranged on top of the stones, and the following ingredients are added, in turn, on top of this bed: beef, lamb, pork, chicken, chorizo (pork sausages), potatoes, sweet potatoes, apples and holed squashes filled with cheese, cream and peas. Subsequently, all these ingredients are covered with leaves and damp pieces of cloth so as to ensure heat preservation. Next comes a layer of plenty of soil, thus turning the arrangement into a genuine pressure oven. Wisps of smoke start billowing out of the ground when the cooking process has come to an end.
Non-alcoholic beverage specialties
Argentines enjoy a wide variety of non-alcoholic infusions (although now and then both “families” are mixed; the yerbiao for example, is mate mixed with caña or gin). Among these, mate has long been the most widely enjoyed; in 2006, over 700,000 metric tons were harvested in Argentina, mostly for domestic consumption.
The fact that mate is so prevalent in the Southern Cone, however, should not necessarily make visitors think that other infusions are rare in the region; in Argentina especially, given the strong European cultural imprint, the consumption of coffee is very common (141 cups per capita, annually). Chocolate infusions are also popular (the eating of chocolate is a Spanish influence, although the plant originated in Mesoamerica). This consumption grows during autumn and winter, or in the cold regions of the country; there are two dates where consumption of chocolate infusions is traditional in the primary educational centres: 25 May and 9 July, that is, the two national dates of Argentina.
English cultural influence (reinforced at the end of the 19th century and beginnings of the 20th by British contacts with the Far East) has also made the consumption of tea very common.
Medicinal herbs are common in the whole country; among the most popular are: chamomile, lanceleaf, boldo, poleo, peperina, carqueja, thyme, canchalagua, rue (macho and hembra, that is, “male” and “female”), mallow, rosemary, passion flower, bira bira, palán palán, muña muña, to mention only the main ones. Many of these herbs are also used in apéritifs and bitters, whether alcoholic or not.
Popular short-order dishes
Common restoranes or restaurantes and rotiserias nearly anywhere in Argentina today serve (into the small hours) quickly prepared meals that in the course of the 20th century came to be known as minutas, “short-order dishes.” Some of the dishes included in the category of minutas are milanesas, churrascos, bifes, escalopes, tallarines, ravioles (ravioli), ñoquis (gnocchi, although some are very typical of locations that sell food), “bifes a caballo” (beef steak with two fried eggs), “milanesa a caballo”, “milanesa completa” (a milanesa with two fried eggs and a garnish of fries), “revuelto Gramajo”, “colchón de arvejas”, “suprema de pollo” (a kind of chicken milanesa), matambres, “lengua a la vinagreta” and “sandwiches” (sandwiches de miga).
The variety of sandwiches are nearly infinite. The most common are those made of milanesa, baked ham and cheese, pan de miga, toast, pebetes, panchos (hot dogs), choripanes, morcipanes, etc.; from Montevideo comes a different species of sandwich called the chivito, even though it contains no goat meat.
Picadas, which are consumed at home or in bars, cafés, “cafetines” and “bodegones” are also popular; they consist of an ensemble of plates containing cubes of cheese (typically from Mar del Plata or Chubut), pieces of salame, olives in brine, french fries, maníes (peanuts), etc.; picadas are eaten accompanied by an alcoholic beverage (“fernet”, beer, wine with soda, to give some common examples).
The people of Argentina greatly enjoy helado (ice cream, sorbet, etc.). From the time of the Spanish colonies there has existed a type of sorbet made from fallen hail or snow.