It is hard to have a conversation about Argentina for 5 minutes without talking about meat. We are only half kidding when we list carne as one of our primary reasons for moving to Argentina. The reverence placed on the asado and its importance in Argentine society can’t be overstated. The priority placed on family in Argentina is a wonderful change from the States. Many of our friends grew up in Cordoba and live mere blocks from siblings and parents. The concept of moving to another city or country for work is rare. An integral part of this family first culture is the Sunday asado with friends and family. We have been very fortunate to have had many opportunities to enjoy asado during our time in Cordoba, so while I’m far from an expert asador, its time to share some of the best part of Argentina. Before I continue though, a brief glossary of terms is necessary:
Asado: Basically a barbecue. Though a BBQ in the States might mean an hour with hotdogs and burgers, an invitation to an asado tends to mean you’re on the hook for at least 4 hours, not that you’re watching the clock after the wine and excellent meat. This is the term for the event itself and the Argentine method of cooking.
Parrilla: The actual barbecue. This typically references the structure of the actual cooking space that can come in a multitude of designs. Usually the parrilla is housed within the quincho (next term) and includes the grill and rack for combustibles surrounded by brick.
Quincho: This is the eating and socializing space typically separated from the house. While house hunting in August a realtor asked Erica what the English translation for quincho was. The realtor was astonished and horrified to find that there is none. I suppose if you imagine nearly every house in America with a “man cave” built around their BBQ outside, you’d understand the quincho.
Asador: The grill master. Lena: The name assigned to any hardwood that’s used for an asado. Typically sold in plastic bags at any kiosco or neighborhood store. Prices range from $13ARS to $25ARS. Carbon: Charcoal is probably too generous on this, but close. This is typically lena partially burned and bagged up and available pretty much anywhere. It tends to be a few pesos cheaper than lena. While many people prefer the flavor from using lena over carbon, it takes less time to be ready for cooking. We’ve been slightly amused and pissed to discover the occasional brick in the middle of a few bags of carbon now and then. A trick to charge more for less based on weight. Carniceria: The meat market. It has been fun to gradually learn and experience the difference between cuts of meat in Argentina and the US. Finding a high quality, reliable carniceria in the barrio has been part of the adventure. When buying meat for an asado the general rule of thumb is to be prepared for 1 kilo per person. Much to the chagrin of the nation, Uruguay recently surpassed Argentina in annual beef consumption. Needless to say they can still put it away nicely. Standard purchases from a carniceria for an asado tend to include vacio, chorizo, morcilla, matambre and asado (short ribs). Fiambres: Appetizers. Typically meat, cheese, olives and bread platters.
The method of cooking meat in Argentina has been a stark difference from our push button gas grill in Portland. There’s nothing fast about an asado. Many families gather on Sundays for a weekly asado, which might be in the shape of lunch or dinner depending on the designated start time. It is standard for guests to bring sides, salads, bread, desserts or drinks potlack-style while the asador handles the meat. Depending on preference, the asador will get the lena or carbon started in advance of arriving guests. The fire is started in a compact, elevated grate to the side of the primary grill. There is no charbroiled grilling to speak of in our experience. The idea is to allow the lena or carbon to burn into hot coals before they are shoveled in a thin, even layer under the grill. Meat preparation is simply olive oil and parrilla salt (basically kosher salt), lots of salt! A good trick I noticed once was lemon added to some cuts as well, but I’ve never seen anyone use a dry rub or sauce of any kind. I get the impression that might be blasphemy. Many parrillas have extra bells and whistles such as grease catchers and grills whose elevation can be changed. The coals essentially smoke and sear the meat slowly, resulting in a wonderfully smoky flavor. It’s tricky to learn how to keep adequate coals at the ready as the coals placed under the grill cool in order to maintain even heat and judge what heat will blacken the meat versus cook it perfectly. As the meat cooks guests snack on wonderful fiambres and hang out in the quincho.
Typical sides cooked on the parrilla include thinly sliced potatoes with paprika and oil, bell peppers, provolone a la parrilla (provolone cheese with oil in a tin dish cooked until bubbling and served with bread), and onions (tossed directly into the coals and peeled after roasting). It’s common to serve the cut as it comes off the parrilla rather than wait until all the meat is ready. In fact at a few man-asados I’ve had the privilege of attending, it’s common to bring your own asado knife and pass around forks to eat communally off the cutting board sin platos. Salads of tomato, potato, arugula or carrot are pretty typical sides along with bread. Of course no asado is complete without dessert after the gluttony. Some of our favorites have been helado and home-made dulce de leche. If Fernet with Coke appears at the end of the night you can be assured you’ve lived a good life.
A huge part of our family’s experience here in Argentina has revolved around the asado. Given the importance placed on asados and the role it plays in family relations we’ve been exceptionally grateful to have been included in the experience with a number of Cordobeses and expat friends here. Wherever we land when we return, we hope to carry back the tradition and technique of the asado and build our own quincho.