Forget the Salad: A Backpacker’s Experience Eating in Argentina

Girl looks at the mountains in Mendoza Argentina
Me on a trip to Mendoza, Argentina in 2007.

Many people don’t know that I once studied and lived in Buenos Aires. It was before I started blogging, which is a shame because I didn’t record so many of my incredible memories. Over the course of four months I fell in love with Argentina. I ate amazing food, saw vibrant tango, and traveled the country from its tropical waterfalls, to its icy glacier, once even taking a 30-hour bus ride as a solo traveler. I recently found my pictures from my time there, and while they aren’t great quality, I just might start blogging about them now and then. For now I leave you with an essay by fellow foodie and backpacker Andrew Tipp, who was also very impressed with Buenos Aires– especially its food!

A travel foodie appreciates the Spanish-influenced cuisine of Buenos Aires

In the soft glow of the restaurant I sliced through the steak. It lay on the plate covered in a glistening charcoal coat of crisp smokiness. My serrated blade carved through the soft, supple sirloin like butter. Outside it was lightly charred. Inside it was red, juicy and tender. The beef delivered a hit of rich, salty meatiness. I swallowed a large mouthful of deep, full-bodied Malbec. Then I sat back, and felt the waves of serotonin wash over me.

Group of friends at a restaurant
Dining with friends in Argentina

It was a fairly typical evening. I was enjoying dinner with friends at a mid-range restaurant in the San Telmo district of Buenos Aires. It was one of my first nights in the country, and I was learning about the historical, cultural and foodie connections between Argentina and its colonial ancestor Spain. Which was interesting. But back to the food…

While outside some tango dancers entertained tourists, inside I was sinking my teeth into a different Argentinian cultural offering. We were at an asado – an Argentine mega-grill heaven where beef, chicken, pork, lamb, venison and just about anything else that used to be an animal is barbequed to create a carnivore’s paradise.

The ‘happy cow’ theory

The restaurant seating area was Latin-meets-Mediterranean, with light red tablecloths and dark wooden furnishings. The walls were lit with candle lamps. The air was a cacophony of clattering cutlery, sizzling steaks and the exotic effervescence of multiple conversations in Spanish that I would never understand.

Meat is a staple food in Argentina, and its population eat the most red meat per capita in the world. As a lover of steaks, sausages and all other animal protein, my time backpacking the country was largely spent trying different servings of Argentine beef pretty much every night. Forget Japan’s Wagyu claims; for me Argentina has the best meat in the world. Why? I subscribe to the ‘happy cow’ theory; the quality of weather and feed and the space to roam on Argentina’s wide open plains just create a very content animal. And contentment equals tastiness. Mucho tastiness.

asado in Argentina
An asado in a Mendoza backpacker hostel.

But it’s also the way the beef is cooked. The asado is part of Argentina’s heritage, and a quintessential travelling experience. Plus there’s the wine. The combination of home-grown meat and a rich, peppery bottle of Malbec from Mendoza is an awesome combination. It’s just winning. You can backpack as a vegetarian in Argentina, but you’d be missing out on a lot of what the country has to offer.

Traditional and authentic stuff

Most nights in Argentina I started with some empanadas – sort of mini-pasties filled with chorizo, potato and cheese and wrapped in golden pastry. To accompany my main meal I sometimes ordered a side salad of tomatoes, lettuce, onions and cucumber – but often I just had the steak on its own. Yep, just a slab of prime meat on a plate. The steaks are beasts, though, with a typical asado portion weighing in at around 500 grams.

empanadas in argentina
Hot empanadas from a Argentine cafe.

If you ever tire of meat, the Italian influence in the country means that pasta and pizza are easy to find. It’s hearty food. Traditional and authentic stuff. But amazing as all this is, neither man nor woman can live on dinner alone.

Breakfast in Argentina is delicious. I usually missed it, because the culture in Argentina is to eat dinner late. Really late. Seriously, it’s not unusual to see people in Buenos Aires and other big cities sitting down to dinner at midnight or one in the morning.

But anyway. Breakfast. It’s a sweet and simple affair. Lots of crunchy toast, fluffy pancakes and light, plump cakes covered with drizzles of dulce de lechea national spread/paste type substance made from milk and sugar. It’s kind of like melty caramel fudge. That’s the best description I’ve got. It’s nice, okay?

Watching the world go by

So instead of breakfast I usually I just moved straight onto lunch. My lunchtime routine was to set myself up on an outside table of a café with a newspaper, water and café con leche (coffee with milk). It’s all very Spanish. Very European. My Spanish isn’t good enough to actually read the paper, but it’s all about creating the right vibe, isn’t it?

cafe tortoni buenos aires
A typical restaurant in Buenos Aires.

Lunch means sandwiches de miga – cute little crustless toasties often made with simple fillings like ham, cheese and lettuce. It’s the best way to spend a lazy afternoon; watching Argentinian urbanites pass by while you get fired up on caffeine.

Travelling around Argentina as a backpacker makes you realise there are lots of regional foodie idiosyncrasies and delicacies to be found in quiet side-street bakeries and round-the-corner cafes. There’s a lot more detail I could go into about Argentinian food, but the meals and rituals above form the foundations of the country’s eating habits.

Like other countries in South America, Argentina can’t boast the variety of spices and flavours that you’ll find travelling around south-east Asia. But what it does do, it does well. Argentina is a country that loves simple, meaty meals and a little confectionary flair.

It’s probably not worth flying to Argentina just for the food, but only just. If you like the idea of being a floaty omnipresent omnivore, then grab your backpack and get over there. I wish you a great many plates of tasty happiness!

About the author

Andrew Tipp is a traveller, blogger and editor. He writes on behalf of Nonstop Ski & Snowboard, who provide snowboard and ski instructor courses across the world. Andrew has spent more than a year volunteering and backpacking around Latin America and southern Africa, and has previously worked as a travel editor for gapyear.com. His favourite continent is South America, and he experienced some of his all-time travel highlights journeying around Argentina.

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