There are some things in Argentina that are really affordable, and Argentina is famous for them: beef and wine. Let’s talk about beef…
Since the beef is cut in different ways around the world, is not easy or simple to compare cuts, until globalization and the excess of communication happened. Now, with internet and food cable TV channels we can flip between an American BBQ, a South African braai or an Argentinian asado with a click in the computer or a zap in the TV. That brought exotic cuts to Argentina. Tourism is a powerful force, and the last couple of years, discerning visitors were requesting the same beef cuts they were having at home in the best Argentinian parrillas (grills). This is how T-bone steaks, Prime ribs and tomahawks begun to show up in the parrilla’s menu in Buenos Aires and other big cities. These places have their own in-house butchers, some of them, they even grow their own cattle. Local travelers going abroad saw these cuts and begun asking their local butcher to recreate these cuts. I’m one of those!
One of the things that caught my attention when started traveling was that, abroad, steakhouses are very high-end, upscale and typically expensive restaurant. I’ve seen establishments with cherry-leather armchairs, museum-grade paintings on the walls, white-glove service and the meat being brought to the table to be chosen personally by the patron before being grilled. The beef comes with a hundred certifications, traceability and awards. Don’t get me wrong, we have all that here too, I worked in places like those back in the day in Buenos Aires before beginning my career at sea. What I’m trying to point out is that, in Argentina we don’t have all that kind of «ceremony» to eat beef. There is when I started wondering why…
In Argentina, the asado is a very popular, very common, very familiar, very social event. Families get together for an asado in regular basis, like almost every Sunday. You play a fútbol game (please don’t call it soccer, only Americans call it like that) you play a fútbol game with your buddies, the losing team pays for the asado. You make a bet with your friends over who will win the World Cup, the wage will be over an asado. You want to celebrate your wife gave birth to a boy, you make an asado. You want to celebrate your wife gave birth to a girl, you make an asado (and your mates will start collecting money to buy you a shotgun for when she turns 15). What I’m trying to say is that in Argentina, beef is not necessarily a luxury. Again, we do have high end parrillas, and the meat and the service there are fabulous. Those are the parrillas I take my foreign friends when I don’t have the time to bring them home to grill for them, or even better, for my dad to grill for them.
Another difference that I found is that in a steakhouse you order your own cut, may be, if it’s a big one, like a 32 oz porterhouse, you will share it. Also, if you want a mix of meats in your plate, a surf and turf is to be ordered. In Argentina, since the asado is a comunal meal, in the grill you will find different cuts, like asado de tira, vacío, several type of sausages, including morcilla (blood sausage), morcilla vasca (a sweet version of the blood sausage, with nuts and raisins), salchicha parrillera (a fresh meat sausage about 2/3 of an inch thick, slightly spicy). It’s common to find some pork cuts, for those that don’t eat beef, and chicken. Ah! And let’s not forget the achuras! Achuras are the internal parts of the cow. In many places considered peasants food, or simply awful. In Argentina they are just loved and treated as a delicacy. The queen among them are the mollejas (sweetbreads) followed by the chinchulines (tripe), and why not kidney. Each of them with its own recipe, and finished over the grill.
I was saying, since the asado is a comunal meal, everybody in the party will be eating what they like. When instead of having this at home is being served in a parrilla, all this assortment of meats, cuts, sausages and achuras is being served in a ember-heated dish and put in the middle of the table and shared by the whole party. Still a comunal meal, even in many high class parrillas.
I was still trying to understand why beef can be considered such a luxury in many places, and Argentinian beef is so appreciated all around the world, when in Argentina is such a regular part of the diet. Such common dish that when is lunch time in an construction site, the workers will just get together around a grill and eat, or you could put the whole country is a moderate civil unrest by just rising the price of beef by a 10 %. Also, I was trying to show my parents the different cuts the way are cut in the different places, and grill them. So I went to Pablo…
At this point I have to give a well deserved shout-out to Pablo, my head butcher. He runs his small-town shop. His purveyors are his former employers, so he knows where the beef is coming from, he selects the product personally, he has a hunger for (no, not beef…) exploration, and an infinite patience to deal with me.
I asked Pablo, and got him the specs, to get me a tomahawk. The first time, he did it by the book. The beautiful steak, with a nice peeled bone all the way. It looked fantastic! There was one comment he made about it: “Eddie, you are wasting so much flavor and good, tasty meat by peeling the bone, looks cute, but…” His comment didn’t go to waste. Are you crazy? Would you disregard a comment like that from your long-time trusted family doctor if we would be talking about your health? And in Argentina, the quality of beef you eat is as important as your health, not the quantity, the quality. We don’t have bad beef, but we just don’t eat average. Has to be good beef.
Argentina has not been graced with great spices. The Argentinian parrilla does not have those complicated cooking styles like smoking with rare woods, like hickory or applewood. Sauces like BBQ, or elaborated dry rubs or seasoning are definitely not part of the culture. Beef in South America is grilled with salt and pepper. Some fancy grillmen, at the most, would sprinkle it with a garlic, rosemary, salt a some other herbs infusion, but that is almost extreme. Beef in Argentina is just grilled.
All these been said, and once grilling Pablo’s double cut (two ribs thick, almost 3 inches high) non-peeled-bone monster tomahawk, I happened to find the bill for this marvelous slice of omnivore heaven, that weighted more than 6 pounds. When I saw it, couldn’t believe my eyes. I googled the price of a tomahawk in a regular supermarket in the US as a reference, it was $16.59 the pound…
Then I understood why Argentinian beef is so appreciated all around the world. The quality is superb as an average, the price is very affordable. My tomahawk costed me (and I called Pablo to check if he billed me the right amount, and he did) my tomahawk ended up being 10 bucks.
Come to Argentina, eat beef. The flight might not be cheap, but you will not regret about the quality of the beef!
World traveler in the quest of the authentic flavours from wherever the ship takes me.