By Matthew Card, food editor of Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street magazine.
The broad, windswept vistas and fertile pampas of Argentina are both stunningly beautiful and ideally designed for nurturing Argentina’s culinary obsession: beef. Grilled beef to be exact. According to Francis Mallman, Argentina’s wild-haired culinary visionary and self-appointed spokesman, “grilling in Argentina isn’t just about the food. It is a ritual and a ceremony.”
Asado, the high art of Argentine-style grilling, is a low-and-slow affair that requires patience and a keen eye. Hardwood is burnt down to glowing coals before being leveled out beneath the meat on the grill; the flaring fire of American grilling is avoided at all costs. The meat’s slowly dripping fat generates smoke, bathing the beef in flavor. It’s a hard-won craft that’s often the family business.
Parillas, or steakhouses, dominate the restaurant scene. Waiters weave between tables, slicing slabs of glistening meat off long skewers with scimitar-like knives. Pacing is key—you’ll want to try all the various cuts on offer.
Mallman may be the face of Argentine cooking, but it’s the pampas-roaming guachos that own the collective imagination. Clad in shaggy sweaters, slouchy bombachas trousers and trademark caps, the gauchos both tend the cattle and cook it on primitive spits. With their razor-sharp cuchillos, they’ll eat hunks of meat with a swipe of tangy chimichurri, a tangy herb sauce as ubiquitous on Argentine tables as ketchup. It’s all chased down with Malbec—the earthy-rich wine that put Argentine vineyards on the map. Tannic and fruity, it’s the perfect foil to the mineral-rich meat. What grows together, goes together.
Make sure to save some room for Argentina’s myriad pastries, which easily rival the quality of the beef. Must-haves include the flaky stuffed empanadas (filled with all manner of stuffings), croissant-like facturas, or buttery-crisp alfajores wafers sandwiched with dulce de leche, arguably the world’s best cookie.