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Buenos Aires : Food, Drink and Culture

Buenos Aires a city with an European flair and feel, with the passion and pace of life that revels its South American culture is a unique city with its tango salons, stylish clothing boutiques, cozy cafes and deliciously prepared dishes from the grass-fed beef.

Obelisco de Buenos Aires
Obelisco de Buenos Aires
In this article, we will explore some of the traditional food, drink and the interesting history and culture of Buenos Aires, which carries the nickname 'the Paris of South America'.

Getting to Know Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires the capital city of Argentina located on the western banks of the Río de la Plata is a multicultural city, being home to multiple ethnic groups. Buenos Aires locals are commonly referred to as 'Porteños', which means 'people of the port'.

Map of Río de la Plata
Map of Río de la Plata
Before the European explorers arrived in Argentina, the land was inhabited by Native Indians. After, being founded by the Spanish in the 16th century, it flourished in the second half of the 19th century due to its fertile lowlands, which made it one of the biggest beef, leather and grain producers in the world.

Buenos Aires has been home to many creative writers and artists, bright-eyed idealists and also dictators, which are all part of its vibrant interesting history.

Foundation of Buenos Aires

The city was founded on February 2, 1536 by a Spanish expedition under Pedro de Mendoza which named the city as Ciudad de la Santísima Trinidad y Puerto de Santa María del Buen Aire (literally 'City of the Most Holy Trinity and Port of Saint Mary of the Fair Winds'). The settlers had to abandon the settlement and move to Asunción, Paraguay in 1541, after being attacked by local indigenous tribes.

Buenos Aires shortly after its founding in 1536 by Theodor de Bry
Buenos Aires shortly after its founding in 1536 by Theodor de Bry
In 1580, another settlement was established in Buenos Aires and this one lasted. The original name of the city chosen by Mendoza was retained, and was eventually shortened to 'Buenos Aires' during the 17th century.

19th century Conflicts and Establishment of Casa Rosada

The Argentinian Republic only emerged after wars against external interests from England and France and internal conflicts in which Federalist and Unitarian factions fought one another.

The Unitarians were made up mainly of Buenos Aires businessmen who advocated a centralized government based in the capital. Their intent was to control the foreign commerce conducted from the port of Buenos Aires and benefit from the import tax revenues. The Federalists consisted of regional elites and businessmen whose interests were local and therefore wanted a decentralized state and autonomy for the different regions and provinces.

Casa Rosada by Karl Kaufmann in 1890
Casa Rosada by Karl Kaufmann in 1890
19th century Buenos Aires can be characterized as politically unstable due to the conflict of interest between the Unitarians and the Federalists. The city was already capital of Buenos Aires Province, and between 1853 and 1860 it was the capital of the seceded State of Buenos Aires. For many years after that the status was debated and fought over until the matter was finally settled in 1880, when the city was federalized and became the seat of government, with its mayor appointed by the president.

The Casa Rosada became the seat of the office of the President.

Development of Infrastructure and Trade

The development of the railroad in the second half of the 19th century and the region’s fertile lowlands created a great deal of grain produce and cattle ranches, which provided raw materials to the city’s factories that exported leather to Europe. By the turn of the century, Buenos Aires was one of the wealthiest cities of the world and had acquired a taste for European high culture.

Teatro Colón in 1908
Teatro Colón in 1908
The first opera house Teatro Colón was built in 1908 and other European inspired architecture started appearing in the city.

The Influx of Immigrants and Its Culinary Influence

As Buenos Aires prospered, the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, created an influx in European immigrants, mostly from Spain and Italy but also significant number of British, German and Jewish immigrants among others, along with residents of Argentina’s provinces and other bordering countries.

Immigrants in Buenos Aires circa 1899 by Frank G. Carpenter
Immigrants in Buenos Aires circa 1899 by Frank G. Carpenter
The influx of immigrants gave Buenos Aires a multicultural profile and also inspired its cuisine. The Italians introduced pizza and all kinds of pasta dishes including lasagna. The immigrants introduced their own styles of cooking and adaptions based on the available ingredients, including native Indian staple like choclo, a form of corn.

Traditional Food of Buenos Aires

Beef is the national dish of Argentina and many dishes contain meat prepared in different ways. There are huge cattle ranches in Argentina, and the gaucho, a term for a skilled horseman, reputed to be brave and unruly is a well-known symbol of Argentine individualism.

Gauchos at an estancia
Gauchos at an estancia
In a country blessed with fertile vast grassy plains (la pampa), top quality beef has been an important Argentine food staple. The gaucho culture and traditions were born from the cows and horses that thrived on these very plains, where the open fire was the popular cooking option and meat a very dependable source of food.

Estancias or ranches play a huge part in Argentina's culture, economy and history. Estancias are also known for their excellent cooking, specially when it comes to the traditional Argentine barbecue called asado, besides other fresh vegetables from the farm. To visitors, estancias also offer a glimpse of the gaucho culture and their daily way of life.

The cuisine of Buenos Aires reflects its multicultural profile as it derives from a mix of different cultures and influences including native Indian ingredients like choclo, a form of corn. Meat is a primary ingredient in many dishes and desserts are an essential part of an Argentine dining experience.

Asado

Asado is used to refer to the traditional Argentine barbecue and usually consists of beef, sausages, and sometimes other meats, which are cooked on a grill, called a parrilla, or an open fire.

Asado is more than just delicious grilled meat; it is the way for celebrating special occasions, birthdays, holidays and even weekends with friends and family, emphasizing the importance of social gatherings and the old traditions of the gaucho culture.

Argentine Asado
Argentine Asado
A traditional asado, besides meat, also includes chorizo (sausage) and achuras (offal). Achuras which include different internal organs and entrails such as chinchulines (small intestines), riñones (kidneys) and mollejas (sweetbread) are considered a delicacy and served before the grilled meat.

The tradition of eating the offal is said to have originated back in the days when the gauchos could eat as much of the cow as they wanted, as long as they left the valuable hide, which was used to make a variety of products including shoes and clothing.

Some common cuts of meat at an asado include, tira de asado (short ribs), tapa de asado (rib cap), vacío (flank) and bife de chorizo (top loin / sirloin). The most common accompaniment with all cuts of beef is chimichurri, a sauce of herbs, garlic and vinegar.

Milanesas

In its most basic form, the Argentine milanesa is a thin slice of prime beef dipped in breadcrumbs and fried. Milanesa was introduced to South America by the Italian immigrants, and it is a variation of an Italian dish 'Cotoletta alla milanese', one of Milan's signature dishes and similar to the Austrian Wiener Schnitzel.

Milanesa
Milanesa
A milanesa is usually made of a thin slice of beef, chicken, veal or fish though eggplant or zucchini can be found as a vegetarian option. Each slice is dipped into beaten eggs, seasoned with salt, and other condiments such as parsley, garlic and pepper which gives it its flavor, then covered in breadcrumbs and shallow-fried in oil or baked.

Another variation of the milanesa, with southern Italian influence of tomatoes is the 'milanesa a la napolitana', a milanesa topped with tomato sauce, cheese and sometimes ham.

Milanesas are usually served with fries, mashed potatoes or salad, and sometimes as a sandwich.

Empanadas

Empanadas are little savory pies stuffed with meat, vegetables and cheeses, often enjoyed as a snack or carried to school for lunch. Empanada comes from the Spanish verb empanar, meaning to wrap or coat in bread.

Empanadas cordobesas
Empanadas cordobesas
Empanadas trace back their origins to the northwest region of Spain, Galicia and Northern Portugal during the period of Moorish invasions. A cookbook published in Catalan in 1520, the Libre del Coch by Ruperto de Nola, mentions empanadas filled with seafood among its recipes of Catalan, Italian, French, and Arabian food.

Empanadas are made by folding dough over a stuffing, which may consist of meat, cheese, corn or other ingredients. They are served warm, usually with a dipping sauce like chimichurri made from fresh parsley, garlic, onion, oregano, along with salt and pepper mixed with vinegar and olive oil.

Traditional Drink of Buenos Aires

Though wine and beer are popular drinks with food, while tea and coffee are equally important, the traditional drink of Buenos Aires is an infusion called mate. The name comes from the hollow gourd from which it is traditionally drunk.

Mate

Mate is prepared by steeping the yerba leaves in hot water. Unlike tea, the water is not boiling, rather almost to the boiling point, so that the water will not burn the mate leaves making the flavor too bitter and also the hot water will not burn the mouth.

Mate
Mate
Mate can be drunk any time of day, but the most important part of the tradition is that it’s drunk communally. It is sipped through a metal or cane straw called a bombilla. In small gatherings, it is traditional for one mate to be passed from person to person, filled by whoever has the kettle. Each refill of the mate, only makes a small drink, but many refills are possible before fresh yerba needs to be added without a significant change in the flavor.

Mate has a strong, grassy, bitter, herbal flavor and is an acquired taste, though it can also be flavored with aromatic herbs or dried orange peel.

Other Drinks

Coffee is a popular drink and served strong. Submarino is a hot chocolate, which consists of hot milk, served with a bar of dark chocolate on the side. The chocolate bar is submerged in the glass of hot milk, and as it melts, it creates hot chocolate.

Malbec a red wine from Mendoza known for its big bold flavors is the perfect companion for beef dishes, and the Torrontés, an aromatic white Argentine wine with moderate acidity is usually served with fish dishes and pasta.

Quilmes is the national brand of lager style beer, named after the town of Quilmes in the province of Buenos Aires, where the brewery was founded in 1888 by a German immigrant.

Culture of Buenos Aires

The local inhabitants of Buenos Aires commonly referred to as 'Porteños' are warm, friendly and social. They love to eat-out breakfast, lunch, and dinner while also socializing and talking about life and discussing the day's events.

Social gathering of porteños
Social gathering of porteños
Porteños are very particular about their families and friends and social gathering are commonly centered on sharing a meal with lively conversations. Invitations to have dinner at home is generally viewed as a symbol of warmth, friendship and integration.

As most Porteños might have a busy schedule during the week, running different errands, the Sunday family lunch is considered as the most important meal of the week, whose highlights might often include asado.

The warmth and affection of the Porteños, is also displayed in their greeting. It is customary for men and women to kiss each other’s cheeks even it if is the first time they have met each other. They are also very fashionable, given their European influence and culture, and hence enjoy keeping up with the latest fashion trends.

A football match in Buenos Aires
A football match in Buenos Aires
Porteños are also crazy about football, much like their South American neighbors, with two football legends, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi originating from Argentina. Every Sunday many go to the stadium to watch their favorite teams or at least watch the game on TV.

Esquina Carlos Gardel Tango show
Esquina Carlos Gardel Tango show
Buenos Aires is also the birthplace of tango, a dance and music that was created by the influence of many different immigrants to this port city, yearning to express their own cultures and socialize through dance and music. Guitar and accordion were the main instruments used in tango early on, but the bandoneon was introduced around 1870, when German and Italian immigrants and sailors brought the instrument to Argentina. Tango has also been influenced by the African rhythm, which created the milonga, a faster rhythmic version of the tango.

There are also many other dances in Buenos Aires, tango being just one of them, which highlights the multicultural diversity of the city and its rich cultural heritage.


References

Libre del coch by Rupert de Nola (Translation by Robin Carroll-Mann)

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