Asado: The Argentine Cookout
03 September 2013
If Argentina has the best of anything, it’s food. Argentines structure their days around food and drink. Breakfast is not a big meal, desayuno consists of coffee or tea and a little bite to eat like some toast with jam. Wait just a couple hours and it’s time for tea, enjoy a couple cookies with another cup of your favorite hot drink. In the afternoon almuerzo (lunch) is served, guidebooks claim that this is the most important meal of the day, but in reality most people (at least in the cities) are working and eat whatever tickles their fancy for lunch. When it’s nearing dinner time in the United States, Argentines are putting a kettle on for another tea time, this time pairing their drinks with something sweet. Cena (dinner) is actually the most important meal of the day. A big comida is cooked up with everyone sitting around the table, followed by a dessert of fruit or pastries with tea or coffee (maybe even banana with dulce de leche #YUM), but this meal isn’t eaten until sometime after 9pm even as late as 11pm. Most of the time, each snack and meal is a time to converse with your friends and family. Whoever thinks of having some tea will first ask everyone at home if they want some, if you join in expect to sit until everyone has finished. It’s as much about enjoying each other’s company as it is the food.
The national dish of Argentina is el asado. Like the barbecue in the United States, an asado is an event and a meal. The similarities to a classic American barbecue end at ‘cooked on a grill.’ My friends and family will vouch for my famous barbecue chicken, an art I perfected under guidance of my father. I like to think he lives on through my cooking, I have friends around the world who have asked me to teach them “Dad’s famous BBQ chicken recipe.” A friend of mine in London told me his attempt at the dish was a hit with his mates across the pond. As an experienced barbecuer, I can confidently say that asado is in a class of its own. I’ve had two so far, one in the evening with a couple of my boyfriend’s best friends and the other at a campground with Alejandro’s family.
|My boyfriend’s family enjoying good food, good drinks, and card games at our Sunday asado.|
The focus of asado is meat, meat, and more meat. Asado is cooked on an outdoor grill, most residences have one built in on a terrace or in the back. There are different ways to cook the meat, each producing a different flavor: coal below the meat, coal below and above the meat, or with wood. Before grilling can begin the fire must down until there are no more flames. The grilling process is long and slow. The first time I had asado it was cooked with coal below the meat, and the second time was with wood.
|Asado being cooked on an outdoor grill above wood embers.|
All kinds of meat are cooked as asado, from pork to beef to chicken. The smaller pieces of meat, such as the innards, are served before the larger cuts of meat. Chorizo is often thrown on the grill and served cut open on bread. In Argentina, chorizo is a coarse meat sausage and not necessarily the spicy Spanish-style chorizo. Expect to be served morcillas, a kind of blood sausage made from pork skin and ground meat, along with various seasoning such as onion, breadcrumbs, nuts, garlic, and rice. It’s delicious cut open and eaten with other bites of asado. Chinculines (chitterlings, the intestines of cow or pig) will come out in this course too, I like these only when they’re cooked to a crisp. You might get a kidney on your plate too, personally I’m not a fan of the texture. The big cuts of meat will come out later, and the variety that gets served depends on the asador. All of this is usually accompanied by salads. On Sunday we also ate sweet potatoes and whole onions that were cooked right in the embers.
|In the foreground are the sweet potatoes and onions, morcillas are in the back.
Traditionally in Argentina the men prepare the meat and the women prepare the salads. In my boyfriend’s family, his madre (mother) cooks everything. She is an amazing cocinera (chef) and everyone would be wise to defer to her when cooking anything. She says that if you have an asado in the afternoon you should pair it with a red wine and if you are making asado in the noche (night) she suggests cerveza (beer).
|Señora Bonzo, the asador hard at work|
We spent the whole day on Sunday at a campground outside of a small town called Lujan. Instead of either of those drinks, we enjoyed maté. Maté is a traditional South American caffeinated drink made from dried yerba mate leaves. It can be naturally sweetened with dried stevia or you can just add sugar. People either prefer their maté bitter or sweet, I’m a sweet maté kind of person. Traditionally maté is served in a gourd and you drink it through a bombilla straw. The special straw serves as a filter so you only drink the tea infused water. An entire post could be dedicated to this drink’s history and variation.
|My favorite thing about maté is the seriously steezin’ pimp cup you get to drink it out of.|
Some families cut their asado with a special goucho knife or cuchilla that is kept in a leather sheath. It’s a large butcher knife that is extremely sharp. The handle may be ornately carved and they come in different sizes, the similarity being the straight back and curved but sharp blade. Alejandro was given his by his grandfather when he cooked his first asado. He has a new one now and is having me use his old one. To care for the blade you do not wash it, instead you rub it with fat from the meal and then heat the blade over the burning embers, scraping away residue. You repeat the process until it’s clean and then put the knife into its leather sheath.
|Alejandro’s family uses gaucho knives, the sheaths make me think of the elves in Middle Earth. (Did my inner nerd just come out of the closet with that confession?)|
Argentina may be famously known for the tango which was born along the Rio de la Plata in the late 19th century, but while not every Argentine dances the tango, every Argentine eats asado.
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