Last night at dinner, I was asked what I miss the most about home. First I thought of the obvious answers- my family, my friends, maybe my dog. But the answer I didn’t say remained in my mind and lingered on my lips for the rest of the evening. My thoughts kept returning to the love of mine that I will never forget- an everything bagel with cream cheese, toasted. Possibly even served with fried egg or bacon… a big breakfast, something that will always remind me of Sunday mornings with my family in New Jersey.
The reality is, food is a large part of our experience in a place. Meals bring people together and sitting down for dinner is one of the best ways to perform honest cultural exchange. Thus, the first and best introduction to Argentina I can give comes in the form of my favorite foods, outlined. ¡Buen provecho!
1A) Dulce de leche- Number one on the list and number one in my heart. Breakfast isn’t really consumed on a daily basis in Argentina. That being said, the days where I have time to sit with my coffee and tostadas (small portions of sliced and toasted bread) with dulce de leche are always good ones. I didn’t really like it at first, but with time I began to crave it. Translated directly into English, dulce de leche means “sweet milk” and is made by heating up milk and sugar. It’s a rich topping that goes with just about anything, and especially makes up for the absence of peanut butter in Argentina. I am embarrassed to admit this, but for the sake of having a completely truthful blog I will share that I probably eat a pint of dulce de leche a week. Insider tip: it’s delicious in hot coffee. Get creative with it!
1B) Alfajores- Layers of cookie covered in chocolate with dulce de leche sandwiched in the middle is something I crave several times a day. Sold on the streets of La Plata for sometimes as little as three for 10 pesos (less than one USD), it is easy in Argentina to pick one up for a little sugar rush before class starts, or something to satisfy a dessert craving after an early (10 pm) dinner. Alfajores are delicious at any time of day, really. I’ve had them for breakfast before and will do it again. I’m not really a fan of white chocolate alone, but white chocolate alfajores are white gold. If you have as sweet tooth, like me, Argentina will be a double edged sword for your sugar intake. On the one hand, anything dulce de leche is delicious. However, something sugary after dinner doesn’t really happen. If you mention that you want a sweet after the last meal, be prepared for questioning looks. It’s much more common to share something tasty over midday coffee, which, for me, is even better because it serves as a great way to slow down and take a break in the early evenings, something I rarely ever do back in the US.
Paradise is located in this jar of alfajores:
2) Mate- A staple in most of my university classes and at my internship, mate is generally a social drink that is passed around between colleagues or friends. If someone asks you if you take the mate amargo, say yes to impress them. Amargo (bitter) means no sugar, which, due to the bitter taste of mate, is something to brag about- kind of similar to people who drink their coffee black. My awake and fully functioning presence in my early morning classes is entirely made possible by mate. My favorite part about drinking mate is that it adds to the atmosphere of discussion during my classes. For example, in the humanities department I am taking a discussion course about organizations and human rights in international development. It is a complicated topic, and definitely one that is best taught through conversation rather than just lecture. The class is small, only about 10 people, and we often form a circle with the professor to analyze the material. The mate makes its way around the circle and even the professor partakes. I like this environment because for me, the sharing of mate makes the setting even more intimate and friendly. This class is once a week and four hours long, so the caffeine* from the mate is more than necessary.
*You will hear the term “mateína” during your time here. In the vocabulary of an Argentine, mateína, noun, is a chemical (but the description borders on supernatural) aspect of mate that boosts energy, hydrates and heals your ailments.
3) Empanada- I tried a bacon and plum empanada on a whim a week ago, and have been thinking about it ever since. There’s something about the way the sweet and strong flavor of the plum gets to know the bacon and cheese in the empanada that makes the perfect complement. Empanadas of any kind are one of my favorite dinners in Argentina. In my travels I have learned that empanadas are all different in varying regions of South America- the ones in Chile are huge (and contain sea food which is delicious), the ones in Colombia are deep fried, the ones in Mendoza (northern Argentina) are deceptively small. The typical empanada that we would be served in La Plata or Buenos Aires for lunch or dinner are medium sized (a meal of empanadas usually consists of two or three in a serving… though you could eat 6 or 7 before you even realize what just happened). Ham and cheese, beef, or chicken are the most common but caprese, plum and bacon, or even pineapple (!!!) are fun to try.
4) Salsa Golf / Golf Sauce- The ingredients of this condiment are literally just mayonnaise and ketchup. Golf sauce is exactly the kind of mixture I would make in Sadler with ketchup packets and mayonnaise, but now it is all in the same container! A theme across many types of Argentine dishes is the presence of mayo- it is in everything. Mayonnaise here can go on vegetables, rice, chicken fingers, and more. I personally am in my element here, because I have always put mayo on my fries or cheeseburgers, and been shamed for it in the US. However, my relationship with the delicious condiment has been tested many times during the past two months I have been here. It creeps up on you. I was told once that I had a salad waiting for me in the fridge for lunch, but found waiting for me a bowl filled with peas and carrots mixed with mayonnaise. I am not complaining, I just needed to adjust my definition of “salad”. After a few bites I really found myself liking it. Writing about it now makes me crave some “salad”.
Edit: I have just been told that apparently Golf Sauce isn’t just an Argentine thing, but I had never heard of it. No matter what you are used to, however, I’m sure you will still need time to adjust to the subtle (and the not so subtle) hints of mayonnaise in all your meals.
5) Medialunas- Back in the US, my preferred way to do homework on the weekends is finding a cozy spot in a coffee shop and doing work with a latte in hand. This isn’t common in Argentina and the honest truth is that this represents something bigger- coming to La Plata is a shock to the senses. Basic things are different here, and what should seemingly be effortless sometimes isn’t. From my perspective, going to a café to do work should be the easiest thing in the world. It’s frustrating to be somewhere and not understand something as simple as where to study, or what to do in a café. Sometimes this can really be hard. The feeling of being an outsider is a part of coming here and a natural aspect of transitioning somewhere new. My best advice is to not let this prevent you from trying, and to always remember to have a good sense of humor. You’ll figure it out, I did! I learned here that medialunas (croissants) are delicious. If you go to a café you can usually get a special of a couple medialunas and a cup of coffee with milk. The medialunas are flaky and usually served warm and can be sweet or salty, depending on how you feel. It’s a perfect breakfast or light snack to enjoy during a quick break with friends.
6) Asado- Less of a food than an event, asado was my first, and best, introduction to Argentina. When I arrived to my house for the first time, the grill was already going and the whole house smelled like deliciously well done red meat (see what I mean about a good introduction?). What followed was a seemingly infinite amount of various forms of beef, pork, and sausage. The large platter of meat in this photo was refilled at least three times, for four people:
When the meat is laid down at the table in front of everyone, it’s typical for the guest to clap for the cook. This reaction is fitting because the perfect meat in Argentina truly is a form of art. While sometimes red meat for the majority of dinners (and usually lunch) can be tiring, I have to also admit that the quality of the steak is delicious. I will definitely be going vegetarian once I come back home to the US due to the sheer amount of red meat I have been eating on a weekly basis this semester.
I absolutely miss American cheeseburgers (it pains me to even write about them) but the steak is something that deserves all the hype. My surely sky high levels of cholesterol are unquestionably worth it.
7) Choripán completo- A choripán is aptly named for its contents- chorizo (chori) and bread (pan). With chimichurri sauce, it’s a salty and delicious lunch or dinner sandwich, an Argentine staple. Choripán completo takes it to the next level- it adds fresh tomato, lettuce, fried egg, and cheese. It will ruin all other choripán for you, so be warned. I would be lying if I told you that I don’t go running in the bosque (the local recreational park in my neighborhood) to be in proximity to the sandwich of sandwiches- the completo is sold in a small restaurant on the water in the park, close to the Natural History Museum. An ideal Sunday of mine is spent lounging outside in the bosque, drinking mate and people-watching as families and university students work out, go to the museums, or rent paddle boats on the pond. A completo for lunch is the cherry on top to fully take advantage of everything the bosque has to offer. Sundays in La Plata are often the best day of the week because lazy Sundays actually exist. Everything is closed (except for the occasional café) and it’s a day to sleep late, eat a late lunch, and legitimately do something to recharge yourself. Treat yourself day is a weekly thing, and I’m there for it.
8) Milanesa- Every day, my host mom leaves a Tupperware with my lunch out on the counter for me to put in my backpack to take with me to class or my internship or wherever I may be going. The days that my Tupperware are filled with milanesa are always good days. It’s kind of like a big, flat chicken nugget. Milanesa is actually an Italian dish brought over by the Italian immigrants to Argentina, but it is now Argentine all the same. In restaurants, if you order milanesa completo you get two fried eggs and French fries on the side (basically anything in Argentina that comes “completo” is a perfect meal). Milanesa passes the test of a delicious food because it tastes good at any temperature- you can heat it up in the microwave or you can eat it cold- my preferred way to eat it is in a sandwich, on fresh bread with lettuce and tomato. I recommend the chicken but beef is equally as tasty. Please do not make the mistake I made and tell your host mom that chicken milanesa will taste good with honey mustard because even if you think you are right at the time you will definitely be met with a confused look. The honest truth is that trying to Americanize Argentine foods, regardless of the small similarities it may have to what you are used to, will not have the effect you think it will. Relax and enjoy what is served to you as it comes!