Asado, Holy Grail in Argentina

BUENOS AIRES – Meat has traditionally been the linchpin of Argentine culture. Whether it’s in a backyard at the weekly family gathering, on an apartment building’s terrace in Buenos Aires or in a parilla (“steakhouse” in Spanish) on weekdays, the sacrosanct asado (barbecue) transcends cooking meat. It’s a ceremony, a passion and an art.

Local TV hosts won’t tell you if it’ll rain or shine on Sunday. They’ll tell you if you’ll be able to eat an asado outdoors or not. In a nation where there’s a religious reverence for meat, expats should thus bear in mind key rules to avoid faux pas.

More, Always More

First, expats should be prepared to eat a lot of meat. In 2014, Argentina topped the global ranking of beef and veal consumption, according to a 2015 OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook. Each Argentine stomach consumed, on average, 41.6 kilograms of beef and veal, compared with 24.5 kilograms in the U.S. and 10.5 kilograms in the European Union the same year.

“Every beast that walks goes to the grill master,” goes the Argentine saying. (“Todo bicho que camina va a parar al asador” in Spanish.) Insatiable South Americans are cheating on their darling, though: they now eat more pork and chicken – which expats might be more used to seeing on the grill (parilla, which translates to steakhouse as well as grill.).

Regardless of their financial means, Argentines will budget for half a kilo of meat per person in an asado. It would be deemed a supreme shame not to serve enough flesh. Argentines therefore always cook more meat and keep the rest for later.

A Ritual

Expats should also know that an asado is, first and foremost, a ritual. It begins when the grill master (asador) ignites the fire on the parilla. The ceremony can last up to six hours. Argentines generally start eating between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. They can remain seated until 6 p.m., as several rounds of dishes are being brought to the table.

Unlike in American barbecues, there’s only one grill master in asados. Friends and family members gather around the parilla and while the grill master is slicing the meat, they open a bottle of wine – ordinarily a red Malbec. The Latin American country is known globally for its Malbec grape variety. They also eat snacks (picadas)– cheeses and sausages with bread.

“It’s very frowned upon that friends arrive when the meat is ready to eat because the magic of being with friends is lost,” explains Esteban Nigro, a savvy grill master from the Vicente Lopez neighborhood at the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

Almost every Sunday, the 35-year old geologist gets together with his parents, four siblings, grandmother, aunt and cousin in Tigre, a town 30 kilometers north of Argentina’s capital, where his parents live; There are always 10 people in attendance. Mr. Nigro usually roasts the meat, his mother makes the salads, and his female cousin and grandmother bring the dessert.

In this macho society, “men are proud to cook meat, while women whisper to them: it’s only about adding salt and turning the meat on its back,” says Mr. Nigro, bursting out laughing. “And they’re right!” he admits.

Women never get close to the grill. They chop vegetables and prepare the few leaves of salad Argentines consume. They also set the table. In a proper asado in Argentina’s countryside (campo), male friends would collect dry plants and grasses from the garden to set the fire.

As stomachs gurgle, the grill master will often feel the pressure to cook faster. Symbolic of Argentina’s lax adherence to punctuality, he might say: “we’re almost there” (“le falta un pocito y ya sale” or “cinco minutos y ya sale”) to buy time. Yet, he’s well aware there’s still half an hour left before serving the meat.

It’s All About Technique

For the expats who will take up the task of cooking an Argentine asado, it’s crucial to know how to heat the fire, how much coal to put on, when to turn the meat on its back — which can be a 600-gram beef joint — and in what order to serve the dozens of different cuts.

“Igniting the fire, waiting for the coal to turn red and sustaining the heat can take up to one hour,” says Pepe Sotelo, the grill master of the famed Don Julio restaurant in Buenos Aires’ upscale Palermo neighborhood. The place is so popular that chefs cook the equivalent of nearly two cows per day. You need to keep adding coal as it burns. About 15 to 20 minutes later, when the parilla is warm enough, you can start grilling the cuts.

A typical asado displays a medley of strip roast (asado de tira), roast (asado vacio) and bowels (entraña), which are the most traditional parts, according to Mr. Sotelo. Ribeye (ojo de bife), the more tender tenderloin (bife de lomo), sirloin (bife de chorizo) and T-bone (bife de costilla) are popular too, says the grill master, who has been cooking asados for the past 22 years.

“The order in which meat cuts are cooked depends on its texture,” says the sirloin aficionado, as Don Julio waiters set the tables to welcome clients. For instance, sirloin – a thick and juicy piece – can’t be cooked at the same time as the heart, which is very fine and hence takes less time. Rib eye and tenderloin can be laid on the parilla at the same time because they’re equally thick. They both require about 20 minutes to cook. Cured pork sausage (chorizo) and black pudding (morcillas) need more time because minced meat’s skin is thinner. Besides, it’s essential to grill it well to avoid germs.

An asado usually starts with the chorizo and morcillas. The grill master then cooks vegetables, namely potatoes, peppers and onions, on the grill next to the meat. Argentines enjoy fully tasting a steak’s flavors on their palate so they cook it with its fat.

Knowing when to turn the meat on its back also depends on how thick the cut is. You generally do so when there’s a bit of smoke coming out from only one side of the piece. You will then see blood juice. For meat aficionados who like it rare, you have to turn the meat on its back beforehand, when there’s more juice.

Most people in the South American nation eat medium-cooked steak (punto) and medium rare (jugoso). “I personally like it rare (vuelta y vuelta)” confesses Mr. Sotelo, a true meat pundit, as he grabs a knife to start chopping parts. He says he needs 12 minutes to cook a 300-gram steak on one side. He then turns it on its back, adds salt, and leaves it 8 more minutes.

Some Argentines will dare to douse their meat – especially sausages – with a chimichurri sauce, which is a mixture of garlic, red pepper, parsley, oregano and olive oil. However, most meat junkies will just add salt not to spoil the taste. Argentines are so steadfast in the simplistic art of the asado that the national team came in last at the 2015 World Barbecue Championship in Sweden because the Argentine cooks spurned the barbecue sauce, which competitors were asked to prepare.

Local differences

The debate over how to make the best asado is as old as the gaucho. Each province vyes for asado supremacy in the world’s eighth largest country.

In Cordoba, for example, about 700 kilometers northwest of Buenos Aires, the local culture is more provincial and easygoing, even though it’s the second-largest city. “It’s strange to eat an asado in a steakhouse — unless everyone is lazy and no one wants to cook,” says Juan Rizzi, a 31-year-old native from Cordoba.

“The atmosphere is more laid-back in a house. Friends play the guitar. That’s how the homemade asado is made in Cordoba,” he adds, in a reference to the peña casera that’s widely popular outside Buenos Aires.

Representative of the cultural skirmish between the capital and the country’s inland over the asado’s frequency, Mr. Rizzi is moving back to his hometown later this month, after working as a lawyer in Buenos Aires for two years. He misses the more regular get-togethers around a parilla with his friends. He also admits that Cordoba’s sausages taste better owing to the city’s stronger Italian heritage.

In Santa Fe, about 450 kilometers northeast of Buenos Aires, “people eat asados 70% of the time because distances between houses are shorter and people have more time,” says Raul Albiñana, a native santafesino. People care about “the marketing of the asado” because this tradition is paramount, he says on a sunny Saturday in Pilar, a town about 60 kilometers away from Buenos Aires and a weekend gateway for many capital residents.

“You always have to think about how to present the asado, my grandfather always told me,” Mr. Albiñana stresses, as he slices sausage and puts it on a wooden plate, while his friend Juan, the grill master of the day, tries to control the amount of smoke coming out of the parilla.

Challenging Gender Stereotypes

Though the asado has specific rules expats should follow, Argentine society is evolving and women are slowly getting closer to the grill.

Rosana Pellenc and her partner Ignacio Costa, both physical trainers, question Argentina’s gender roles in asados. In Miramar, a charming town on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, about 450 kilometers south of Buenos Aires, Ms. Pellenc remembers that the first time the couple’s friends and relatives saw she was the one cooking meat, they mocked them and made sexist jokes.

“Since we met 22 years ago, no one has ever had a (gender) role in our (relationship)” she says. Eventually, they accepted the situation and enjoyed the asado all together.

This article was published in The Wall Street Journal on September 28, 2015. Link here


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