Argentina is a country of brilliantly indulgent food. For our first few days in Buenos Aires, I don’t think we even encountered a fruit or vegetable. There are a few key things that will continue to crop up throughout your time in Argentina, delicious yet sinful:
1. Dulce de leche
The nation’s crack, this gooey thick caramel made from condensed milk (think the middle layer of a bannoffee pie) – is omnipresent in Argentina (and neighbouring Chile, where it’s known as ‘manjar’). They spread it on toast, put it on icecream, in sandwiches, in liqueur, on crackers, and sell it by the tub load. If you go into supermarkets, there will be a wall of DDL of many brands and sizes, and you’ll see it on menus with flan (or creme caramel to us Brits) and various other sweet treats. It’s absolutely delicious. At our height of DDL addiction we were getting through a middle-sized tub in 2 days, spread on crackers with sliced bananas, and on fresh french bread. Mmm-mmm.
The inspiration for the British pasty, empanadas are delicious pockets of pastry goodness and come fried (frito) or baked (horno) and in a variety of amazing flavours, from the traditional (meat, chicken, ham and cheese, cheese and onions), but also more interesting flavours, like roquefort in BA; fish in portside towns; and spicy meat further North. Perfect for the bus, you can generally get two or three for a quid, and they’re super filling, sold in all bus terminals, supermarkets and most cafes.
3. STEAK!!!… and meats in general
Best in BA but good everywhere, Argentines really know their steak. Best cuts are ‘bife de chorizo’ (sirloin strip), ‘bife de lomo’ (a leaner tenderloin) or ‘ojo de bife’ (rib-eye). Bife de chorizo is definitely the best – juicy, enough fat to give it flavour, and always pretty massive. You can get away with sharing a bife de chorizo and adding an actual chorizo (sausage) on the side, then splitting it between two. Jesus, I would give my left arm for some of the steaks we had in BA! Wow. Ojo de bife is even more delicious, but smaller and more spenny. Aswell as steak, you’ll find a national obsession with ‘churripan’ (chorizo and chimmichurri hotdog) which is a divine snack. We added ketchup, because we’re gringos.
The search for the perfect steak dominated our time in Argentina…
4. Fernet and coke
An Italian bitter herb spirit, Argentines are inexplicably obsessed with fernet. You’ll see it everywhere, from cocktail bars to supermarkets. It’s definitely a grower, but once you’re in, you’re in! We got hooked on it after a couple of weeks. You have to mix it with sugary coke (or a convincing sugarfree substitute) to balance out the bitter herby taste, but it’s surprisingly delicious when mixed right and served on ice. Whenever we’ve been in hostels with Argentine students, there’s always tons of bottles of the stuff hanging around. They can’t get enough!
Not as in ‘alright mate?’ but mate with an ‘accent grave’ on the e. Pronounced ma-tay (excuse my basic keyboard that lacks accents!) If dulce de leche is the nation’s crack, this is the nation’s heroin. It’s a bitter green tea that you brew in a gaud made of a fruit skin (or just any old mug) and you drink through a ‘bombilla’ which is a straw with a perforated filter at the end. You see Argentines with this everywhere. In 30 degree heat, there they are, walking round Iguazu Falls, with a 3 litre thermos to top up their mate cups with hot water. They’ll prepare it whilst driving (as we saw with a lorry driver who gave us a lift). They’ll drink it anywhere. It’s traditionally drunk in groups, where everyone will take a sip and pass it on. Sam’s totally hooked on it (it’s a mild stimulant, so explains the fag-like addiction of fans) and will nurse a cup of brew for a whole day. Lots of travellers suffer a similar fate. Personally, I can’t get past having bits of bitter tea in my mouth. Apparently if you add a load of sugar it’s better? Hmm. I’m not convinced. (But I’d never tell an Argentine that!)
Sam excitedly awaits his first alfajore experience!
Two biscuits sandwiched together with a layer of dulce de leche, covered in chocolate. What’s not to love? They come in all shapes, sizes and flavours, from novelty ‘Milka’ and ‘Oreo’ ones, to a traditional ‘Bon o Bon’ branded one with DDL or peanut creme inside, to more classic dark chocolate, DDL and spongey biscuit. You can buy them solo or in bumper packs, and they’re amazing. Just eat them quick before they melt! You’ll get given them on every long distance bus you’re on, so you’ll get so sample a few no doubt 😉
Helado from Jauja (the best!): DDL with blackberries, cherry and banana flavours
I didn’t know this before visiting, but Argentine icecream is second to none. Like, better than Italy. Must be something to do with the fact they have a ton of cows here, and access to a lot of ripe delicious fruits (and of course, DDL!) because it just tastes delicious. Often it’s organic milk that’s used to make it; they get just the right balance of sweet with a touch of salt; it’s not over-sugary, it’s dense, and it tastes of the actual flavour (not an artificial version of that.) Expect to taste real bananas, berries, or the richest of caramels. It’s not always cheap, but buy as much as you can (especially in smaller towns where it’s cheaper) and look for ‘helado artesenal’ as this means it’s the proper stuff, not a sugary rip-off!
8. Miga sandwiches
Disgusting, but weirdly addictive, the miga sandwich is like nothing else. It’s ham and cheese in flavour (no surprises there!), but what makes it different is the bread they use. It’s white, it’s REALLY thin (think a sandwich you’ve accidentally sat on in your bag), and it’s crustless. So what results is an eery, thin layered sandwich with three layers of spooky white bread, fake cheese, and processed ham. Sounds gross, but it’s actually a really good snack when you’re looking for something light (or you’re drunk, hungover, or lazy) and it goes down far too easily. What’s even weirder is when you see the bread being sold in the supermarket in weird blocks of crustless bread bricks. Es loco!
These are a real staple of regular Argentine folks. You often see older dudes eating these in cafes and cheap restaurants. I think of them as the Argentine version of ham, egg and chips or a meat pie. It’s a breaded thin cut of meat (maybe flank steak or chicken), served with chips or mash. And boy is it comforting! It’s like when you’re a kid and your mum cooks you fish fingers or turkey dinosaurs. And you can’t really go wrong with it, which makes it a pretty safe buy.
10. Red wine (obv!)
It goes hand in hand with steaks, and goes without saying, but Argentines LOVE their red wine. As backpackers, we always go for the cheapest (about a pound a bottle!) and Argentines we meet always berate us for it, as we’re basically drinking the Argentine equivalent of White Lightning. But to us, it all tastes good! You can get an amazing bottle for a fiver (which admittedly, tastes less of tannins and pure booze) and there is SO MUCH to choose from. We got pretty hooked. If you’re going to Chile afterwards, save your appetite as they sell it in 1.5L bottles there!
11. Pasta (and Italian food in general)
Argentina is a nation of immigrants, and Italians are a huge part of that. It’s a wonder they can get through the pasta and pizza, there’s so much of it. You can buy partially made ‘pizzettas’ (mini pizzas) or pizza bases with puree already on, to creat your own. You can buy ravioli of all flavours, endless fresh and dried pasta options, and so many sauces. They even have pizza flavoured pasta sauce (which I would advise against. It’s gross!) I’d say it’s variable in quality. Some ravioli was ok (if bland); our worst tasted bitter (it was ham and cheese WTF?!), but the fresh plain stuff was delish, and even came flavoured e.g. spaghetti with pesto mixed into the pasta mix. Worth experimenting!
Our failsafe of fairly bland ravioli with homemade veg-packed sauce
NOTES TO BEAR IN MIND:
Breakfast doesn’t really exist in Argentina. Or at least not in it’s known state. It’s generally entirely sweet (cake, croissants, bread with DDL, sweet or bland cereal with yoghurt, fruit if you’re lucky), and won’t include eggs, meat, or anything with sustenance or slow-release carbohydrate. You’re likely to spike in energy.
and then crash! Just roll with it. And cook brekkie where you can! Or carry bananas everywhere to balance out your energy levels when needed 😉
It’s really easy to overdose on ham and cheese. It’s everywhere. Resist it where you can, as it’s almost always highly processed and can get a ‘bit much’ for the old stomach. If you’re gonna buy it, go to a counter in the supermarket and look for the most natural looking stuff (good luck!)
Avoid chocolate! Most chocolate out here (that’s made here) is really gross. Mainly because they make it with palm oil, and palm oil derivatives. It doesn’t melt, it just sort of… sticks, then flakes. Weird. You’re obviously safe with milka or other exports though, and there’s a particularly addictive Nestle one called something like Strauss-Nauss with almonds. Yum!
Bon apetit amigos!