How to eat like an Argentine

'Medialunas' or 'half moons' are a cross between a croissant and a brioche — Pictures by CK Lim
'Medialunas' or 'half moons' are a cross between a croissant and a brioche — Pictures by CK Lim

BUENOS AIRES, July 27 — What looks like a croissant, tastes almost like a croissant but isn’t strictly a croissant?

Breakfast time in Buenos Aires, where locals enjoy nothing more than a cup of coffee and a pastry. The pastry, in our case, is a bowl of what appears to be small croissants albeit with a shiny glaze. These, we are told, are medialunas or “half moons.”

A cross between a croissant and a brioche, medialunas are certainly rich. Every Porteño (literally “port people”, referring to folks from Buenos Aires) seems to be having one or two for their breakfast. Some enjoy a more European style medialuna de manteca (butter medialuna) while others prefer a less sweet medialuna de grasa (“greasy” medialuna).

There is a light vanilla fragrance, maybe citrus note of lemon. I bite into one, the pastry more fluffy than flaky, the sticks-to-your-fingers layer of syrup ensuring you’d never mistake it for a French croissant. This is as Argentinian as it gets.

Which makes me wonder, albeit not aloud, “How do I eat like an Argentine?”

Meats on the grill inside a 'parilla' or barbecue restaurant (left). Enjoy your lightly charred 'asado' with a side of fries and topped with chimichurri (right).
Meats on the grill inside a 'parilla' or barbecue restaurant (left). Enjoy your lightly charred 'asado' with a side of fries and topped with chimichurri (right).

The stereotypical (though hardly untrue) reply might be: “With lots of meat.” Argentina is known for its plentiful herds of cattle grazing its verdant plains.

In the higher altitudes of Patagonia, flocks of sheep roam and Patagonian lamb is a particular delicacy.

That’s a lot of meat. So how do Argentines like it best? The answer comes from the traditions of the gauchos or Argentinian cowboys who have been grilling beef and lamb over open fires for ages.

Thankfully, you don’t have to head out to the wilderness to experience this rib-tickling barbecue or asado.

Nearly every street corner in Buenos Aires will have a parilla or barbecue restaurant promising the best asado in town. Expect copious amounts of lightly charred meats fresh from the grill.

A savoury 'empanada' filled with crab meat and cheese
A savoury 'empanada' filled with crab meat and cheese

Beyond the usual beef, lamb and pork, other smoky delicacies include sweetbreads and blood sausages. A side of fries and a generous topping of chimichurri (a green salsa that’s the national condiment) and you’re all set.

There’s more to Argentinian cuisine than asado, of course. One savoury staple is the ubiquitous empanada, a baked or deep-fried pastry filled with stewed beef, crab meat, cheese, shrimp and even goat.

Its portable nature makes it great for a meal on the go. Lovers of street food must try the choripán, a rustic sandwich of grilled chorizo, crusty bread and the indispensable chimichurri to balance the grease of the sausage with some much needed acidity.

Back to breakfast: Beyond the conundrum of the not-quite-a-croissant medialuna, even the Italian-style coffee (courtesy of Argentina’s history of Italian immigrants) isn’t as straightforward as it may seem.

Instead of an espresso or a short black, ask for un café chico. For something even stronger, order a café en jarrito — which amounts to a double espresso – and be prepared to stay awake for days.

Order a 'café en jarrito' for a strong coffee (left). Dunking a submarine-shaped chocolate into hot, frothy milk makes it a 'submarino' (right).
Order a 'café en jarrito' for a strong coffee (left). Dunking a submarine-shaped chocolate into hot, frothy milk makes it a 'submarino' (right).

A bona fide Porteño’s cuppa of choice, however, is a cortado: an espresso that has been spiked with a drop of milk. Still strong and bitter, but a smidgen creamier (though that might be the imagination).

You could go in the opposite direction and order a lagrima — a cup of milk laced with a hint of coffee — but folks will probably just look at you funny.

The Argentine’s sweet tooth extends to beverages too. So rather than risk the public embarrassment of a lagrima, why not order a submarino? A tall glass of hot, frothy milk arrives with a submarine-shaped chocolate. Dip the chocolate into the hot milk — imagine a submarine disappearing beneath the waves, hence its name – and enjoy a fun, messy treat!

Many Argentinian food and drinks have European roots, be it a cortado from Italy or an empanada from Spain. But every generation brings new immigrants and the influx of fresh culinary influences.

Contemporary Argentinian cuisine has adopted ceviche, a Peruvian import (itself a legacy of Japanese migrants to Peru), when Peruvians began moving to Buenos Aires in the early 1990s.

Ceviche, originally a Peruvian dish of fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices and seasoned with chopped onions, chillies and cilantro, is now part of contemporary Argentinian cuisine
Ceviche, originally a Peruvian dish of fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices and seasoned with chopped onions, chillies and cilantro, is now part of contemporary Argentinian cuisine

Today the dish of fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices and seasoned with chopped onions, chillies and cilantro is a new staple, especially in upmarket Porteño neighbourhoods such as Palermo.

There is so much that I haven’t even begun to cover. From the intensely saccharine dulce de leche, a reduction of caramelised condensed milk, to the crumbly alfajores, a shortbread sandwich filled with seasonal jams that is considered the national biscuit, the Argentines do have a sweet tooth.

Instead of tea to wash these desserts down, try some mate (pronounced “mah-teh”), a bitter beverage made from the dried leaves of the Ilex paraguariensis plant and drunk from a gourd with a metal straw that is passed around. And so much more.

So, how does one eat like an Argentine?

With slow, tiny bites: nothing too heavy to start the day, just a sweet, fluffy medialuna and a very strong café en jarrito. With a hearty appetite: empanadas then some smoky asado topped with chimichurri, followed by a well-deserved siesta. With something tangy to prepare you for a night of dancing ahead: a ceviche by way of Japan, then Peru, and now something profoundly Argentinian.

How does one eat like an Argentine? Why, with a gluttony for life, of course — enjoying every bite and every moment for we do not know when our next meal comes.

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