An Ode to Asado
Warning: this post is not for vegetarians. Wanderer-in-Residence Jodi Ettenberg explains how this Argentine classic reignited her love affair with red meat.
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By the time I made my way to Argentina for the first time, I had not eaten red meat for several years. I was in South America — mostly in Uruguay — to do research in sustainable development law. I was in over my head with the newness and cultural differences, having just spent the last several years in law school in Montreal. While Quebec certainly has a more European feel than the rest of Canada, this new Latin swagger and confident conversation felt completely intimidating. Plus, speaking French and not Spanish I couldn’t even remember the Spanish word for oil. I would stand in the grocery store staring at the shelves of tuna in panic, unsure of which was best to buy.
I was already having significant trouble eating due to my diagnosis of celiac disease. Without red meat, chicken and gluten, there wasn’t much left for me to eat in Argentina as a wanderer. Often, on-the-go foods involved both meat and bread,?hence my turning to cans of tuna.
It was in that first store in Argentina that I met a friend who would coax me out of my shell and introduce me not only to tuna canned in water, but also the glories of Argentina’s asado (a gathering where much grilled meat is consumed). In the process, he inadvertently changed my diet back to one that included beef.
What is Asado?
Argentina is known for its meat, and many of the meals include a cut of beef whether as the main dish or a side treat to the main event.?In both Argentina and Uruguay my friends and colleagues referred to asado both as the act of grilling itself, usually by an asador, the dedicated griller, and to the social event of eating the meat.?
An asado is a long affair, one that brings family and people together for hours. It is rooted in the traditions of cattle herders, called gauchos,?from the grasslands of Argentina’s central provinces.
As with Texas and its famous barbecues, you can get asado at a restaurant, but it is not a worthwhile comparison. The glory of asado remains in the process, from selecting the cuts of meat, to preparing them as a group, to the long talks over glasses of red wine as the meat slowly cooks. An asado is a community event, not simply dinner.
Don’t be fooled into thinking an asado consists of a T-bone steak or flank cut of meat. The asado has a sequence of meats and a sequence of cooking that happens bit by bit, with the main cuts of meat taking at least several hours to grill. As a result, before these cuts are served the table is presented with embutidos, a variety of sausages such as morcillas (blood sausage), chorizo, chinchulines (my fave — cow intestines), as well as organ meats. These are often presented on a brasero (a miniature coal grill that is placed at the table) and are meant to be enjoyed while you wait for the main star to arrive.
Then it’s time for the cuts you were waiting for. Costillas or asado de tira (ribs) are whisked from the barbecue to the waiting crowd, followed by vacio, a large cut of flank steak and matambre, a thinner cut from the same area of the cow.?Occasionally, the asado will also include chicken after this parade of meat, as well as a mixed salad, some bread and the occasional grilled vegetable.
Chimichurri, comprising of parsley, oregano, salt, pepper, onion, cilantro, vinegar and olive oil, is often served alongside the meat as a dipping sauce, allowing the flavour of the meat to dominate but providing a wonderful contrasting punch.
Same same but different
As to the cuts themselves, they too were not what I ate at home. The cuts are larger in Argentina, and have quite a bit more fat on them. Instead of slicing meat into individual steaks, a significantly larger chunk of beef is grilled and sliced at the table in rounds. Everyone is able to eat as the meat comes off the grill, a continuous grazing process that takes hours.
In addition, unlike with the barbecues of my youth, or my travels in North America, the meat was rarely marinated. Instead, a simply salt rub was lovingly applied with the focus on the taste of the beef itself.
I fell back in love with red meat in Argentina, to the dismay of my vegetarian friends at home. I take responsibility for my taste buds and try to avoid red meat when I don’t know where it’s been sourced or how it was raised. But during those months in Argentina and Uruguay and further travels in South America, I would occasionally look up and see a cow grazing on the side of a mountain or a plain, simply doing what cows do (chewing its cud). And I assure you that you can taste the difference, both from the quality of the meat and also the love, precision and spirit with which it was prepared.
The asado is one of the reasons I travel and write about food. Because it isn't just a meal, it is a tradition that brings people together to learn from each other, enjoy their food and laugh long after the sun goes down.
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