Saturday, August 07, 2010

Argentina: An Annotated Glossary of Food

Weeks of bouncing around Argentina meant weeks of collecting information about food. Eating is one of my favorite forms of research and I love to share my discoveries. Argentine readers, please feel free to correct any errors I have made, or add details where I've fallen short.


Alfajores: These are the signature Argentine cookie. When they're homemade, they're usually two butter cookies sandwiching a healthy slather of dulce de leche (see below), then rolled in grated coconut. Bakeries take them to a new level though, with thinner cookies for a greater dulce de leche-to-cookie ratio, or sometimes dipping the entire cookie in chocolate. The most famous brand of alfajores in Argentina is Havanna. Havanna is to alfajores in Argentina as Starbucks is to coffee in the US; both chains are everywhere, and when you enter one, you know exactly what to expect.

Asado: This is a blanket term for all meat types, from beef to sausage to pork, that are cooked in a parilla (see below). A person who mans the parilla to make the asado is called an asador. As barbecuing is a fine art from in Argentina, to be an asador means that one is very talented in the fine balance of smoke, heat, char, and meat. I think it would be very, very hard to be a vegetarian in Argentina. Meat is central to both the food culture and the social culture.

Batatas: Sweet potatoes, most commonly the violet-skinned, white-fleshed variety are named batatas. A common preparation in the German influenced areas of the country is take big chunks of papas (potatoes) and batatas, smear them with olive oil, salt, and garlic, and roast them in a hot oven with boneless short ribs. The short ribs end up tender and succulent on the interior with a great brown crust, and the papas and batatas are perfectly smooth and almost custardy inside, with a meaty-crunch-salty crust.

Casero: This adjective means homemade or made in-house. If you see facturas (see below) caseras, you know that you've found a restaurant that makes its own sweets, rather than purchasing them elsewhere. Most restaurants make their own bread in-house. The word goes hand-in-hand with good eating.

Dulces: Dulces are sweet preserves of a nearly infinite variety. The most familiar is probably dulce de leche, milk cooked with sugar down into a sticky, caramelly spread. Dulce de membrillo is another typical treat, quince flesh cooked down into an aromatic gelled brick, served in slices. Other common dulces are kumquats preserved in syrup, chunks of winter squash soaked in lime water then preserved in syrup (this is strangely delicious, with a crunchy crust and a sweet, smooth interior), puree of batatas set with gelatin and a swirl of dark chocolate (also strangely delicious). Hundreds more exist. It seems the Argentines can turn almost any kind of flora into a preserved sweet. Dulces are often consumed with cheese with breakfast or for dessert.

Empanadas: Empanadas exist in many cultures; in Argentina, they do not frequently contain raisins or other sweet additions. Instead, the fillings for the crescent-shaped savory pastries usually include olives and diced hardboiled egg along with a meat (beef, chicken, tuna, etc) and spices. Almost every celebratory meal begins with empanadas.

Facturas: It is hard to walk into a bakery and decide which facturas, small pastries, to purchase. Miniature meringues filled with dulce de leche? Cookie bases with a cone-hat of dulce de leche all dipped in chocolate? Chewy bread with a dulce de leche filling? Or, if you're not feeling dulce de leche-ish, how about eggy-custardy filled small pastries? Or one of my favorites, pasta frola, a thin layer of vanilla scented cake spread heartily with membrillo and topped with a lattice of cake strips? How does one choose? One doesn't. One purchases a little of everything. Argentines consume facturas at breakfast, at tea, sometimes at dessert.

Huerta: A huerta is a food-producing garden. Unlike in other parts of the world, I didn't see many huertas in Argentina. I expected to see them in yards and small towns as soon as we left the city, but few people seemed to tend their own vegetable gardens. One of the few that I did get to see grew on the roof top of a relative's neighbor.

Humita: This is my favorite new-to-me food. It is a pre-Spanish food, a porridge of starchy-sweet corn grated (not cut, humita-makers were very emphatic about the need to NOT cut corners when making this dish) off the cob, cooked with a little onion, a few spices, and often with winter squash. Frequently, a cook will swirl in chunks of of soft, melty cheese. Sometimes, humita is the filling for tamales. It is delicious and comforting.

Galletinas: On my first trip to a grocery store in Argentina, my father-in-law walked me to one aisle and pointed. "Look," he said. "The whole aisle is full of crackers." The aisle had crackers of every imaginable seed and grain and combination thereof. Apparently, Argentines really love galletinas, crackers, and they appeared at breakfast, at lunch, and at tea.

Morcilla: Morcilla is blood sausage, and the Argentine version is made of blood, pork skin, spices, and not much else. It doesn't contain rice or potatoes or breadcrumbs to add stability and filling. After hitting the parilla and being split open, morcilla becomes an amazingly rich pate, and tastes fantastic smeared on good bread. I ate morcilla every chance I got. I don't think I will be able to find a near facsimile of this version in the US unless I learn to make it myself.

Parilla: The special barbecue structure in which asadores make asado. Parillas exist at nearly every home, sometimes even getting a special breezy room so that barbecue can happen in inclement weather. In the cities, the roofs of buildings are scattered with parillas.


Phew. I ate a lot. It's a tough job.


Unknown said...

Phew...that was a lot, Christina! Thanks so much for the gastronomic tour of I'm jonesing for anything with dulce la leche in it!

Susan C said...

My mouth is watering from the description of the meat (short ribs) and potatoes dish.

Christina said...

Thanks Lori and Susan C! I can't believe I forgot to write about mate in that post, but it may just deserve it's own post.

ann said...

I can't imagine which of those would be my favorite. They all sound amazing, though I think I'd like to try all that dulce de leche. So delicious!

Christina said...

Ann: Yeah, all dulce de leche all the time works well for me too!