Monday, January 19, 2009

Starting off with Food


One of my friends asked me to be sure and take photos of the meals we had. To start things off, I thought that this email from a friend with experience traveling in Argentina and Chile would set the stage for what will to come.

Hi Gregory, It is a big area that you are covering, and except for the
coastal cruise to Puerto Vara, over our 48 years together, Susana and
I have visited all. Each country is as/more scenic than California and
Arizona together, but each different and wonderful. What I have
written is no doubt more than you wanted, but think of the pleasure
you have given me in writing it!

Gourmet, "individual" cooking is only now getting to these countries
in the sense that they arrived in California (maybe) with Alice
Waters, 30 years ago. But the standard is reasonably high
everywhere--even in a bus station you will find well-prepared basic
items. The basic dinner menu in Argentina is wood-grilled
beef--potatoes--green salad--bread--wine (or Coke/Sprite) or the
previous replacing the beef & potatoes with Italian dishes. Goat is
also commonly grilled. It used to be that it was really hard to find
chicken or fish on a menu, but now they are standard. You might say
the national dish is parrilla (grilled beef): a multi-course gorging
of grilled sweet breads, sausages, and 2-3 kinds of steak/ribs. It
also used to be that grilled meat was always served well done--slowly
grilled over cabracho (one of the hardest woods in the world)--and
that is still the default; but if you are attentive when ordering you
can have medium or med-rare (jugoso, pronounced hoogoso -- juicy). A
punto, which sounds like it would be rare, "a point" in France, is
medium-well done in Argentina. The free range beef is flavorful and a
bit chewier than U.S. meat, and there is relatively little heart
disease considering the highest per capita meat consumption in the
world. In the press, there are raging arguments as to whether to allow
feed-lots. Chimichuri is served on the side with steak and sometimes
bread -- recipes vary from town to town, household to household, and
Argentina to Chile: but it contains lots of parsley, a good bit of
garlic, and a splash of vinegar and sprinkle of salt. Then maybe bay,
olive oil, or someones secret ingredient.

Green salads are ubiquitous and do eat them--you won't get sick. The
custom is a bit different, although you can find anything you like.
You might be served a leaf of lettuce topped with a few sliced
beets, a heap of grated carrots, and some sliced tomatoes--all
arranged separately. You pour your own vinegar and oil on. Salt is
always on the table, but often you have to ask for pepper--Susana says
it is historically expensive. A chopped lettuce salad is also very

Baked goods, particularly the breakfast "media lunas"
(mini-croissants), are wonderful. There are relatively simple, little
pastries, called facturas, that you can have with coffee. The coffee
is wonderful, not like Chile (bleow). The two "equivalents of a
hamberger" are alfahors (all the alph/alf sounding words are of
mid-eastern origin via the Moorish conquest of Spain) and empanadas.
The first is a largish Oreo cookie, with regional variations found
both in Argentina and Chile. You can buy them fresh in bakeries or
wrapped in foil just about everywhere--e.g., at kiosks. Fancy boxes
are sold in the airports at excessive prices -- but a box on the
street in B.A. might be reasonably priced--alas almost all of the
wrapped ones are made by some subsidiary of Nestle. The basic alfahor
is composed of two cookies of shortening bread, filled with dulce de
leche (milk jam--like milk caramel), and sprinkled with powdered sugar
or maybe coconut; but they might as well be covered in chocolate (dark
or white), and in Chile are more likely filled with jam than dulce de
leche. You know what empanadas are -- turnovers -- these are generally
baked, eaten hot or cold, and filled with ground meat, onion, and
chopped egg; or spinach and cheese; and other things. If you don't
crush them, they'll keep for a day w/o refrigeration. They are often
eaten as a dinner appetizer or a stand-alone lunch. For lunches on the
go, besides empanadas, you will see glass-cases stacked with thin,
"crustless" white-bread sandwiches filled with good ham and/or cheese.

The ice cream in Argentina's big cities is wonderful; we look to have
a cone every day when we are there!

If you are lucky, you will at least sometimes escape the parrilla (BBQ
beef) places. And do see if you can eat regionally in the north and
south of Argentina. On our last trip to the north-west of Iguazu (near
Bolivia and Chile), we found it to be mixture of indigenous people´s
diet with potatoes (wonderful), vegetables, llama, plus the Spanish and
Italian influences. I had an outstanding peanut soup--mixed in were
some flakes of parsley, very mild but flavorful. And it was topped
with just a few matchstick potatoes as a garnish. It would please
anyone. At Iguazu Falls many years ago, I was introduced to matambre,
an appetizer dish of rolled, stuffed thin-sliced steak. In the north,
also, for dessert they serve a regional cheese (casiello) topped with
either honey or a jam called dulce de cayote (pronounced cajote) --
technically a pumpkin jam made with a large squash like spaghetti
squash. In the south--Patagonia, the Welsh came and raised sheep
instead of beef (gauchos of the pampas), and there are lamb stews and

It is worth going once to a MacDonalds in B.A.or other big city--they
don't have a drive through, but are otherwise fancier than the U.S.
stores. There might be a special part in the entry set aside for
coffee service; and/or similarly for ice cream service. The menu in
the main part is otherwise pretty much like the U.S. menu, but no
milk-shakes. Strangely, given that food is generally 20-30% cheaper
in Argentina, on the actual dollar prices are a bit higher than the
U.S. or at least were in October. Also, the pizza in B.A. is generally
very good.

Chile is completely different food-wise, except they do have media
lunes. I don't think they value food as the Argentines do, but in any
case, seafood is often on the table, and it's good, but includes odd
things on occasion. In Antofagasta, we had an assortment of local
things served with rice at a stand on the (non-touristy) pier, and it
included some sort of a bright red,very chewy tube worm (like poorly
prepared, flavorless abalone)--Susana recalls the name piure, but now
googling it, I am not sure. I don't eat any raw seafood unless I
really know who prepared it (e.g., not in Atlantic City N.J.)--ceviche
is excepted because I don't consider it raw.

In Argentina, the default coffee is cafe con leche--equal quantities
of fresh double-strenght coffee with steamed milk. In Chile, they put
a carafe of hot water on the table in all but the best hotels, and
provide you with Nescafe (powdered coffee) or tea bags. Again, Susana
thinks it was a matter of cost. The latter is also common in Peru.

When you're in Iguazu, see if you can swim under one of the little
water falls off to the side. When we were there, there was an
"unadvertised" spot were you could slip into a small pool surrounded
by jungle! We also made a day trip to the colonial hotel on the
Brazilian side of the falls that was remarkable.

Our trip to northern Chile was wonderful; particularly because we went
on a cheap tour from San Pedro de Atacama to the south of Bolivia. We
slept in modest hostels, bumpy-traveled by 4-wheel drive vehicle, but
our 4 companions were a lot of fun, and the scenery unique: salt
flats, flamingos, hydro-thermal vents and pools, beautiful rock
formations (like Chile).

It used to be that you could buy silver, leather and woolens in
Argentina and be sure that what you are getting was locally made. Now
the alpaca sweater that I bought in Peru can also be bought along the
road almost anywhere in Argentina. If you ask the vendor where they
come from, they look away or say "up north". They are still a good
value. One doesn't generally bargain for purchases there except at
street-market stands. Prices for craft items vary widely for the same
item -- often over 3-fold. Maybe that is everywhere--so buy when you
see something that you like, and hope that you don't find it the next
day for half the price. No-one starves in these countries and there
are fewer beggers than in Santa Monica, but while half of the
population lives fairly well, half lives quite poorly. So I do carry
dollar bills to give away here and there.

Don't carry much extra money--almost every store accepts credit cards
and there are ATM's everywhere with generally modest charges for
overseas withdrawals. I did get pushed down and my wallet taken in
Santiago -- the only such occassion in a life of travel; so now I
carry two wallets, one for real in an inside (Travel Smith) pocket,
and one with a few pesos for general spending and an assortment of
look-like-credit card plastics in my backpocket.

I hope that you and Pat have fun--I'll look forward to your journal and photos.


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