I feel like it has been forever since I’ve sat down to write. Sunday I returned from a two-week trip to Argentina; it was truly the trip of a lifetime. My plan was to write a few blog posts while I was there, journeying my trip and sharing the food culture as I experienced it. Unfortunately, Verizon wireless was not cooperating and time at my computer was scarce. Now that I am back in the states, I’m reflecting on the fun and want to share some of the fabulous encounters, food and wine that I had the opportunity of experience.
I consider myself well versed in many different cultures and have traveled to many places in my lifetime. For three years, I taught food culture at the University of Pittsburgh. I’ve read books, reviewed videos and pictures and studied the land and history of many different areas of the world. In class, I lectured and held discussions with students on the immigration patterns of South Americans into the US, religious beliefs, family, traditional food beliefs and practices, staple foods and the diverse geography of the continent. And, in preparation for my trip, I took Spanish class at the local community college. That said, nothing compares to the experience of visiting the land, living and talking with the people, and actually eating the food. I thought my Spanish was descent; I had a lot to learn.
Much like the US, Argentina is considered a country of immigrants. Most Argentineans are descended from 19th and 20thcentury immigrants of Europe, and it is obvious when you are there. The most popular religion is Roman Catholic, and both Spanish and Italian traditions have shaped the family structure. As we traveled across the country, we often spotted smaller statues resembling Christ the Redeemer, the famous statue of Jesus Christ in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Christ the Redeemer is also high in the Andes and marks the border between Argentina and Chile.
I wanted to learn as much as I could on the culture. There is limited data available on the traditional health beliefs and practices of Argentineans, so I took it upon myself to learn from them during my visit. Herbal teas are a popular remedy and you can buy medicinal botanicals for home use at small markets called yerbeterias. Our Argentinean tour guide described how many woman drink Yerba Mate as a way to “keep their figure.” Of course, I could not resist trying it, and I even brought some home to share. Below is a picture of what the yerba Mate is consumed out of. The containers can be purchased everywhere in the country. The Yerba Mate is spooned into the container and then hot water is added. It is common for Argentinians to carry this around with a thermos of hot water so that they can drink it on the fly.
Drinking this beverage did not help me shed any pounds, but it’s not bad……with a little sugar added! Another tip I learned from the people- garlic and onions are a must for preventing altitude sickness when hiking in the Andes. Northwestern Argentina (along with other north western countries in South American) is also known for the cocoa plant, also said to be helpful for altitude sickness and an important part of the Andean culture.
I was excited to learn more about the food culture in Argentina. Up to this vacation, everything that I knew had been learned from a book or a video. Much of that proved to be true, but of course, seeing is believing! Agriculture in Argentina is an extremely important part of their economy. It is a major beef producing region and its people eat more beef per capita than in any other country. Soybeans, wheat and maize are other important exports. While I am not a huge fan of red meat, I could not visit Argentina without trying the steak. I enjoyed many great meals while there, many of which were different cuts of beef. The first picture is calf steak and potatoes graten with saffron served with cafe and criolla sauce. The second picture is another steak meal at the winery that we stayed. Delicious!
Another must-try was empanadas. They are served everywhere and very inexpensive. Most menus (not in tourist areas but basic restaurants or cafes) offer fresh empanadas for as little as 5 pesos or $1.25 US. Like most foods, if they are prepared fresh they taste better (the first photo) than if they are served older (second photo below).
The second photo was in La Bocca, in a souvenir shop. By this time of day, we were starving and this was meant as a snack to hold us until dinner. I should mention that dinner time in Argentina and many other countries is much later than in America. Nine o’clock at night is a typical dinner time. (that’s like my bedtime!)
I could go on and on about the food culture, but I will just mention one more notable practice. Ham is everywhere! From the meal on the airplane, to a daily breakfast option, to restaurant menus and cafes, ham or ham sandwiches were always available. In restaurants, if you order a hamburger, it will come with ham on it. Even my arugula and carrot salad that I ordered at the airport in Buenos Aires included ham (though that was not mentioned on the menu). Here is a photo of a continental breakfast that we were served at one of our hotels. Every morning- no matter where we were in Argentina- slices of ham and slices of cheese were served, along with the more common croissants, cereals, toast and sweet rolls.
The next flight took us to the city of Mendoza. As a wine lover, I welcomed this portion of the trip- relaxation, horseback riding, food and wine. We stayed at the beautiful Salentein, a winery located about 1 ½ hours from the city of Mendoza, but visited many wineries while we were there. Every March, The Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia (The National Grape Harvest Festival) is held and attracts many tourists. If I do ever return to Mendoza, I will be sure to go in March.
Our trip continued with a flight to the northern providence of Misiones, where we visited Iguazu Falls. Then it was south to Santa Cruz to visit the Los Glaciares National Park and the beautiful glacier perito moreno. We went trekking on the glacier and visited El Calafate in the evening. We spent a few days touring at each place, but also enjoyed visiting the towns, talking to the locals and learning about the culture.
The trip ended back in Buenos Aires, this time in the Palermo neighborhood. We went to a tango dinner, shopped and mingled with the people.
There is a lot to be learned from other cultures. As with most trips I take, I returned home with a better understanding of how others live and have an even greater appreciation for cultural diversity.