Beyond Steak & Empanadas – Argentina’s New Wave Cuisine

Argentina's New Wave Cuisine

It’s easy to get carried away with the stereotypical image of Argentina as the land of red meat. The Argentines certainly eat a lot of beef, though nothing like the amount consumed a generation ago, and it is still a very important export. It has been said that the country produces the equivalent of two 240-gram steaks a year for every person in the world, with six more standing on its pastures.

The image has been promoted abroad through the traditional Argentine steakhouse – a place of rustic charm where vegetarians fear to tread. And it may have been reinforced by the recent ‘Malbec – made for meat’ campaign to boost sales of the country’s best-known wine. The chef Fernando Trocca, who runs Sucre in Buenos Aires and is also executive chef at the Gaucho Group of Restaurants, says “Argentine Malbec is a great wine, but we also have many other types of grapes offering great quality. It’s a similar analogy to how we also have other great varieties of food outside our parrillas and asados.”

Ceviche at La Flor de la Canela, photo courtesy of LWY.

Argentina’s Rich Culinary Heritage

Put simply there is far more to Argentine cuisine than empanadas and steak. Which is obvious when you think of the ingredients that make up this country – Hispanic, pre-colonial and endless waves of immigrants, all mixed together in a rich stew. The Italian influence is everywhere and not just in the variety of pastas, pizzas, polentas and risottos you can find in a city like Buenos Aires. “The Argentines have the benefit of such great raw produce,” says Martin Williams of the Gaucho Group. “They don’t have to tart it up too much. So it’s always been a fairly unfussy food based on very good quality ingredients in the same way Italy is.” Even the simplest tomato salad for example can be packed with flavours you will never find in one made from those tasteless Dutch tomatoes sold in northern Europe.

Scratch a little deeper and you will uncover all kinds of other influences. The country’s modern chefs have drawn on regional dishes beyond the Pampas and its famous grass-fed beef cattle. Hernán Gipponi, chef at the Fierro Hotel in BA, mentions the following home-grown produce worth getting to know. “The fish from the Mar Argentino, prawns from Puerto Madryn, spider crabs from Tierra del Fuego, baby goat from Malargue, and quinoa and carob from Tucuman.” Trocca adds other dishes such as locro – a hearty Andean caserole of pork, white beans and sweetcorn, as well as humitas – sweetcorn patties, and tamales – cornmeal tortillas filled with meat or vegetables.

Tamale, photo courtesy of fabulousfabs.

Inspiration from Around Argentina and the World

Others have been inspired by the river Paraná. At his Buenos Aires restaurant, Jangada, Ricardo Annichini, offers tararira, boga, and surubí – freshwater fish named by the Guaraní tribes that once fished the river’s upper reaches. So does Fernando Rivarola at El Baqueano, where you can indulge in a seven-course tasting menu that includes llama carpaccio, chinchilla wraps and caiman kebab. And if that doesn’t convince you that not all Porteños live solely on beef, check out La Vineria de Gualterio Boliva next time you are in BA. Here Alejandro Diglio, who once worked at El Bulli in Spain, will give you a molecular gastronomic treat you’ll never forget.

La Vineria de Gualterio Boliva
La Vineria de Gualterio Boliva, photo courtesy of scaredy_kat.

One of the country’s best-known restaurateurs, Francis Mallmann, opened Patagonia Sur in BA’s La Boca as a homage to the deep south. Having spent years cooking nothing but fancy French dishes he decided he was “through with the pretentiousness of haute cuisine. From that moment on,” he explained to the American food writer, Peter Kaminsky, “I wanted to cook with Argentine ingredients and wood fires, the way I had seen gauchos and Indians cook when I was growing up in Patagonia.” As well as its wonderfully succulent lamb, the region is rich in seafood like spider crabs, scallops, tiger prawns and merluza negra (Patagonian toothfish).

Sushi in Buenos Aires, photo courtesy of fabulousfabs.

Inspiration has also come from beyond Argentina. The cult of ceviche – the citrus marinated raw fish that is considered part of Peru’s national heritage, has spread south to be adapted and reinvented by creative cooks in Buenos Aires. In many ways the popularity of the dish in all its various forms has simply followed the wave of sushi and sashimi which first introduced the West to the idea of eating raw fish. As a starter it represents a deliciously feminine counterpoint to a main course of rare steak. It also subverts Argentina’s hoary old image of red meat and machismo.

Discover some of our favourite places to eat Argentina’s new wave cuisine around Buenos Aires here. And leave a comment below to tell us what restaurants you think are pushing the boundaries of traditional Argentine food.

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Tom Bruce-Gardyne

Tom Bruce-Gardyne

Having worked his passage from London to Buenos Aires, Tom spent his gap year travelling round South America. Years later, while teaching English in Santiago he got into wine and returned to work in the trade in the UK and Italy. Since 2000 he has been a full time journalist, has written three books on Scotch whisky and has just won the Louis Roederer 'regional wine writer of the year award' for his weekly column in the Glasgow Herald.

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