The next time you slap a few burgers on the gas barbecue, spare a thought for the prehistoric origins of the purest cooking method of all. The word barbecue is originally derived from the Taíno (Caribbean) word barabicu which translates as ‘sacred fire pit’ and which entered European languages as the Spanish barbacoa.
While the modern American interpretation of the barbecue hasn’t got much more than a name in common with its caveman ancestor, there is a country where traditional barbecues still take place on a mass scale every single weekend. Interestingly, Argentines don’t actually call the ritual barbacoa; instead the term asado is applied to the slow roasting of large chunks of beef above a sparse bed of coals.
In the two years I spent living in Argentina I ate, by conservative calculations, at least 300lb of beef. A typical weekend involved a Friday night asado which only kicked off after work at about 11pm, a Saturday night asado which started slightly earlier; and a Sunday afternoon one which coincided with 3pm football. Argentines celebrate birthdays, promotions, weddings, and first communions in one way and one way only: they eat cow.
Argentina’s economy is based on beef exports and leather, another cow bovine product, is also a major money-spinner. A few years back, the Argentine president suspended all beef exports in an effort to keep local prices down and hopefully ensure re-election. It worked. These guys take their cow pretty seriously, and there’s nowhere they take it more seriously than suspended above a smattering of embers.
While most Americans would eat proper barbecue at a specialised restaurant, every single Argentine male considers himself a professional asador. These guys won’t cut any corners when it comes to making their national dish. They’ll buy the right wood and they’ll light their fires using only newspaper as kindling. They’ll go to the butcher themselves and laboriously select each piece of meat and they’ll even get into arguments about which kind of salt goes with which cut. That’s not to say that Argentine restaurants don’t serve asado – they do, they’re called parrillas and they’re exceedingly popular – but it just serves to illustrate that the asado has not yet been commercialised.
In Argentina the meat which hovers above the fire almost always comes from a cow, unless you’re in Patagonia where whole sheep are slow-roasted on racks for hours on end in what is known as cordero patagonico.
What the Argentines lack in variety of species they make up for in sheer variety of body parts. I don’t consider myself a squeamish person, but I never used to have a very large appetite for innards. This all changed when I moved to Argentina, where I tucked into blood sausage, stomach lining, tongue and even nipples. (Or are they teats?) I have eaten squares of heart, slices of liver, chunks of kidney, wedges of thymus gland and even squiggles of brain.
The cow is a big animal and so are its internal organs. These are invariably cooked whole before being hacked up by the asador with an ornamental Gaucho dagger and devoured by men, women and children alike. At one asado I was unable to eat any of the main course (a large hunk of succulent cow) because I had already gorged myself to bursting on crispy intestines, both large and small, drizzled with lime juice. Of all of these grisly bits, the only one that I had trouble getting (and keeping) down is mondongo: a white spongy substance which comes from one of the cow’s four stomachs and looks like it’d be far more at home on a coral reef than a dinner plate.
The asado is not entirely limited to things which we’d feed our dogs, however. The coup de grace of any asado is the meat course. Argentinians butcher their cows differently (they cut through muscle and bones as opposed to across them) but the recurring theme of the asado is that the hunks of meat are hunks in the David Hasselhoff sense of the word; that the meat is heavily salted, slowly cooked, and well-done; and that there is at least a pound of flesh (that doesn’t include offal) per person.
If you’re lucky enough to be invited to an asado, jump at the opportunity. Take a bottle of red wine for the host (this, not beer, is the drink of choice) and be prepared to eat late and leave even later. Otherwise, ordering a parrillada mixta (mixed grill) in a restaurant is the next best thing – check out this link for five of the best in Buenos Aires.
Thanks to Pace Charging and Segio Nunez for the images in this post.