Food is one of the joys of travel. Savvy travelers make a point to try local delicacies whether they’re proffered by gourmet restaurants or from street vendors carts. I’ve always favored the street vendors above all, because it is this food that most surely represents what local people eat.
Upon arrival in Buenos Aires we made our way to the weekly antique market in San Telmo and, hungry from a whole night of flying, made a beeline to the first street vendors we saw. Empanadas we’re served warm from a basket and other young bohemians we’re walking along the market streets offering sandwiches and even cakes. We tried the empanadas and a pan relleno, and, well, um, meh.
Turns out, San Telmo’s market really is catering to tourists (so much for my theory on street food). Porteños (Buenos Aires locals) don’t really believe in eating standing up, they take time to sit down and have a meal.
Even elsewhere in Argentina, there were almost no street vendors to be seen. Once more, home grown Argentine fast food is almost completely absent as well. I spotted a couple of McDonald’s and perhaps a few other representatives of the global juggernaut of fast-food corporations that homogenize the world over and are the opposite of what many adventurers are looking for. Upon closer inspection, many bakeries and several deli’s offered food to-go and plenty of restaurants have comidas para llevar (take-away meals) but it you have to look for it. Fast-food and take-away food just aren’t a big part of the Argentine culture.
This should be music to any foodies ears, except, they’d be making some pretty big assumptions. Is there automatically something wrong with quickly prepared meals? Ask the Thai, who barely need their own kitchen for the staggering abundance of amazing food served from carts. Mmm, pad thai. Mmm, chili mangos. Tell that to Mexicans. Much of the Mexican food served in sit-down restaurants outside of Mexico, from tacos to churros, is more authentically served from carts in-country. Tell that to the Chinese who whip up dozens of dishes from menus pages and pages long all in just minutes, and to the Chinese who frequently spend about as much time eating it as the chefs took to prepare it. Time is hardly an accurate qualifier for food.
It certainly is interesting how successfully Argentina has resisted an invasion of world-brands and U.S. American fast-food culture, but I can’t really say it’s made their food any better. Argentine food consists of loads and loads of their famous beef, served in hundreds of parrilla’s (barbecues) around the nation. Here, fine cuts of meat are cooked to death, and asking for your food rare might get you a dry medium. It’s good quality meat, but hard to see what all the rage is about. There are plenty of pleasant pastas, with the same small vocabulary of sauces available at nearly every restaurant (sauces are separate and sometimes included such creative choices as tomato juice). Pizzas are damn good, but, um, that’s mostly it. They’re not big fans of spices, and don’t have much variety in the way of sauces. We had some delicious meals and plenty of boring ones. We ate in nice places, with tourists, moderate places recommended by locals, and dives that we found on our own; food was, well, just fine and not particularly cheap (about the same as in the U.S. or Europe).
It is a very pleasant change not to even have to avoid all the fast-food chains or lament how their own food culture is being destroyed by globalization. All the more odd there seemed relatively little food culture to protect.
The ice-cream, though? Amazing. Probably the best in the world. Really. But that requires a whole post of its own.