By Guillermo Astigarraga
Argentina is known the world over for its meat, one of the nation’s basic foodstuffs that is on everybody’s diet almost 365 days a year. A barbecue in Argentinian Spanish is an “asado”, a half-day long family affair that unveils the nature of the country and its people. Of course you can eat grilled meat at countless restaurants, shortly after you get off the plane at the airport in Buenos Aires. But sitting at a restaurant expecting a waiter to bring the food to your table is nothing like sharing the grilling from scratch – and, if possible, the trip to the butcher’s to buy the meat – with an Argentinian family and the family friends that usually tag along on this traditional weekend activity. An asado is the social event of the week: a young married couple, for instance, whose parents on both sides live in the same city, will alternate by visiting one set of parents each Sunday. If there are no family ties and the meal is organized among friends, then the location will rotate, each of the guests becoming the host by offering his or her own backyard, grill and grilling skills one weekend at a time.
If you are a foreigner visiting Argentina, and through your local acquaintances you get invited to an asado, accept it without second thought and ask what you should bring. You’ll be told not to worry, but a bottle or two of Argentinian Malbec is never a bad idea. Then, on the indicated date, make sure you arrive on time to witness the preparations, including the extra layer of local flavor provided by the trip to the local butcher’s or neighborhood supermarket to purchase the meat, as well as the bread, salami, different kinds of cheese and drinks that will be shared as appetizers while the meat is being grilled. If you knock on your hosts’ door on the early side and stay past dessert, you will learn a great deal not only about asado, but also about those you share the meal with.
The first thing you’ll notice is the division of labor involved in preparing the meal. Men grill the meat, women make the salad -which is just tomato and lettuce dressed with oil and salt, and maybe a squirt of vinegar; after all, the salad is not the point, it’s all about the meat (look closely at how the different groups function, men in the backyard grilling, women in the kitchen chopping vegetables, all roles predetermined, neither side interested in introducing any variations).
As preparations get under way, it is very likely you will see a bottle filled with a thick, black liquid called Fernet passing around. This is an aperitif of Italian origin that’s massively consumed with asado, but not in its originally intended form. Fernet, in Argentina, is not an occasional alcoholic drink you have before a meal for good measure, but a thirst quencher you drink throughout the meal. Any time is good for Fernet, which is usually mixed with Coca-Cola, producing a less bitter, more refreshing version, with a thick yellowish foam that stays put for as long as the liquids stay in the glass. (Tip for the foreign visitor: you might want to taste it before you commit to a full glass, and to the refills that will keep coming if you drink it and smile). Fernet, as so many other things in Argentina, is part of our Italian heritage, and just like Italians, when we socialize we are loud and talk with our hands. You will start noticing this by the time the second round of Fernet is going around, if not before.
But regardless of Fernet, Malbec, or any local beers on the table, discussions where hand gestures are as important as the words being uttered will light up quicker than the fire needed to grill the meat. Futbol will always be part of the meal time conversation, and politics too, of course -it is important to notice that discussions about these two subjects usually follow the same pattern: unrelenting argument that gets more and more heated, sudden distraction, shift to new topic, no clear outcome or conclusion. In any case, you shouldn’t worry: even if all of those present support the same team or political party, there would never be agreement. Just like soccer, heated argument is also a national pastime.
The main thing to keep in mind when an asado pops up on your vacation calendar is that you will be treated like a family member by your hosts. They will offer you the best they have, and will be happy at the table if you keep coming for more, be it another glass of Fernet or another perfectly grilled chorizo. A warning, if you’re curious about minced ingredients encased in a tube made of skin: blood sausages can also be eaten raw, and they usually are, as an appetizer next to the cheese and salami. The difference between raw and cooked blood is -except for the temperature- almost insignificant. If you dared to try it raw and didn’t like it, avoid it when it comes to you later, right off the grill.
If you visit Argentina and you get an invitation to eat asado at somebody’s place -a friend, a friend of a friend or just an acquaintance-, do not miss the opportunity. Go wherever they tell you: a mansion-like house with a manicured garden in a gated community, a student apartment in the heart of downtown (tiny space in the back for the grill), a typical middle-class home in the suburbs or a lower income house a bit further away, just go. Most likely you will love the food, you won’t forget the experience and, if you pay close attention, you will begin to understand your hosts and their country a little bit better.
Guillermo Astigarraga is a freelance writer from Argentina. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing in Spanish from New York University and is currently working on a travelog for publication: www.cronicasdeviaje.net. After ten years in the United States, he recently moved to Croatia.