By: Jack Griswold, Gail Hall, and Ryan Bollar
As we all return home with our bellies stuffed, a deeper understanding of the food culture in Argentina has surfaced for every student who visited Buenos Aires. Not only is the Argentine food experience unique, but it is deeply rooted in the culture of the region and opens a window to help us understand the nature of the Argentine people. Throughout the multitude of economic recessions and corrupt politicians, the people of Argentina have developed a calm nature within a storm of craziness and the dining experience reflects this attribute. Our group knew going into Buenos Aires that meals would be extended from what we were used to and that we should allow about 2hrs for each experience, but we were blown away at how much longer all of our dinners ran. When dinners reached 1:00AM and espresso was served to keep everyone up, our group feverishly awaited “la cuenta” and yawned as we walked back to the hotel. Although our group of Americans was annoyed with the slow service in the first days of the trip, we began to embrace it and our group realized that the long dinners allowed for a calming of the day and a chance to really get to know people at the table. The country’s cuisine certainly was a culture shock to our group regardless of how much research we did prior to our departure, but we fully embraced the Argentine customs and wholistically enjoyed our stay in Buenos Aires.
In our previous post we researched various traditional Argentine foods including “asado” beef, mate, malbec, and empanadas that were a staple of our diet in Buenos Aires. Our group’s unanimous favorite food was the “asado” beef, which is slow cooked grass-fed steak that is an option at any restaurant. We witnessed a traditional “asado” meal during our visit to a ranch outside of the city where the “gauchos” cooked massive beef tenderloins and chickens for hours on a smoker-grill before we arrived. With this meal we were served empanadas, bread, salads, sausage, espresso, and dulce de leche for dessert. The ranch meal was nearly three hours including the tango show throughout, certainly one of the greatest culinary experiences of the trip.
Our group’s greatest surprise was the prevalence of dessert pastries in Buenos Aires that seemed to be served at every meal and on every street corner. Much like asado and malbec, dulce de leche is adored by the Argentine people and it is consumed in many forms from the icing between cookies to a ice cream topping. We were surprised to see that often dulce de leche pastries are consumed for breakfast with coffee, which is extremely unusual compared to the typical American breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast. Dulce de leche is a product of the sheer amount of milk producing cows in the region and is a nationalistic symbol. Not only is it a dessert, but dulce de leche is a passion for the Argentine people and exemplifies their prevailing nature that is assisted by something sweet at every meal throughout the day.
While the food served to us was authentic and delicious for the most part, the cost of the food was something that surprised us, on both ends of the spectrum. Leading up to the trip, we were led to believe that, at a fine dining restaurant, we would have a nice steak, a glass or two of wine, and an appetiser for around 10 to 12 USD. This expectation was shattered fairly quickly, having a nice meal at any time would cost between 140 and 240 pesos. Along with paying this price for a meal, you add in the wine, which could be around 50 pesos per glass or 120 pesos for a bottle. After spending money for the meal, you pay a small table fee, between 20 and 40 pesos, and tip the waiter 10%. Someone who bought less expensive things would probably pay around 20 USD, while someone more loose with their money could spend 30 USD on the meal with the unofficial exchange rate of 12 pesos to one dollar. This difference in our expectations and reality was explained to us by Martin Frankel, an American entrepreneur who started a bar in Argentina. He explained how there has been inflation of about 40% over the past year, and he changes the prices on his menus every quarter. Despite the inflation, the blue dollar exchange rate(12.5 for him, 12 for us) has stayed about the same, drastically changing prices from when our mentors went to Argentina .
Something almost as unexpected as the high costs of fine dining were the low costs of local grab-and-go food and drink, empanadas in particular. Empanadas are a staple in Buenos Aires, and they happen to be priced where most people can afford them at any time. Going to a local hole-in-the-wall, patrons can find empanadas ranging from 12 to 18 pesos, $1 to $1.50 USD with our exchange rate (more so with the local’s exchange rates). Two empanadas filled up most of the Americans on the trip, so an entire meal, sometimes for lunch, sometimes for dinner, cost between $2 and $3. The difference in the quality of empanadas can be easily seen: the 12 peso empanadas are typically pre-made, decent empanadas that they heat up, 14 peso empanadas can be either pre-made or fresh, but are usually lower quality, 16 and 18 peso empanadas are almost all fresh, fully stuffed, delicious empanadas. These are all outrageously inexpensive prices that surprises all of us who went to Argentina.
Despite the difference in our expectations in price, the food was what we expected: something unique, delicious, and rich in both history and culture. We tasted the full range of food, going from steak, to pasta, to empanadas, to pizza, and more. The unique mixture of flavors, textures, and atmospheres coupled with the history and culture, combine for something that truly deserves the name, Cocina Cultura: A Land of Beef and Wine.