Monday, April 2, 2012

The Argentine Experience feat. 5 Cultural Lessons

Last Monday, March 26th, we decided to partake in the #1 rated tour on's Buenos Aires section - the Argentine Experience. They described themselves as a "group of likeminded individuals devoted to showing off only the highest qualities of Argentine culture and cuisine." I didn't know what that meant, but I did really like their website design: From it I learned it would be a cooking class /dinner party, where we'd make empanadas, eat steak, drink mate and make alfajores for dessert. So how was it?

Awesome! This was easily the best thing we did in Buenos Aires. Leon, the host, and his chef friends put on an amazing evening. We were welcomed into the evening by Leon, a British ex-pat and former travel tour organizer. He was full of energy, funny, engaging and quickly broke the ice. As the wine poured and the appetizers arrived, people quickly started chatting. In total there was only 10 of us. Before too long it was time for empanada making! First, we learned to make proper empanadas - the trick is to buy the dough for the outside and save a lot of time. Of course you also need a delicious filler (I have the recipe for the meat one and the veggie one, and I'm happy to share).

My parents suit up.
Empanadas are ubiquitus in South America. However, what you didn't know (Cultural Lesson #1) is that Argentines aren't very adventurous eaters - they like things bland. In fact, you won't find pepper shakers in restaurants. They don't even use garlic, because they think it's "too spicy". Crazy. Being so unadventurous, requires that empanadas be clearly marked for their ingredients. They've taken this to an extreme, and there are laws that dictate the shape of the empanada based on its filling!

The legally required shapes for empanadas depending on their filling.

First timing making an empanada, and just look at that border!
After the regular empanadas were in the over, it was time for the "creative emapanada" competition. Everyone got two empanada shells and with the filling had 15 minutes to create their entry. I made a sheep, which I filled with beef (yes, blasphemy). Other entries were various figures, animals and words. When they were baked, my sheep was crowned victor (partially because the front legs had collapsed, and it looked like the pig was eating - for a closer look jump to the album at the end). I wasn't about to corrent them, that the pig was supposed to be a sheep, and collected my prize.

Winner of the creative emapanada making portion. Boomtown!
After the award ceremony, we had a very entertaining portion where Leon taught us various common hand gestures you can observe while watching two Argentines talking. Happy to show you in person. Lesson #2: Because of the large Italian ancestry in Argentina, hand gestures are a must. In fact, you can pretty much figure out half of a conversation just by watching it. *Best hand gesture is one that often precedes a cat fight in a club. As Leon described it, it sort of looks like you would look while saying "What's up b!tch?!". Dana, this one's for you ;-).

After the lesson, it was time for steak. This wasn't regular steak. This was organic, free range, happy cow. Leon had to travel to 23 different farms tasting meat until he found the best one, specially aged, incredible steak. WOW. Best steak of my life. Lesson #3: Meat in Argentina is like religion, in fact that's pretty much all tourists know about the place, that and tango. Back in the day of the cowboy (gaucho), cows wandered around grass fields and the meat was good. However, after the economic collapse, and following economic problems, factory farming of meat has risen in popularity because of its cheapness. As a result the majority of grills (parillas) use factory farmed meat. Boo.

This steak was incredible.
Following steak, there it was time for dessert. We made alfajores (Lesson #4: accoring to Wikipedia, "Argentina is today the world largest consumer of alfajores, both in total numbers and in per capita calculations, being the most common snack for schoolchildren and adults. In Argentina and Uruguay, it usually contains traditional dulce de leche, although there are a lot of variations."), which are cookies with dulce de leche in between and usually coated in chocolate (though the best are coated in merengue). Here's a photo of the best alfajor we had outside of Buenos Aires at a local chocalate place:

We got to make our own alfajores.
With dessert, we also got a lesson about mate. Lesson #5:

Simply: Yerba mate (Spanish: [ˈʝerβa ˈmate]; also spelled in English as maté, from the Spanish: yerba mate, Portuguese: erva-mate, IPA: [ˌɛʁvɐ ˈmatʃi]), binomial name Ilex paraguariensis, is a species of holly (family Aquifoliaceae), well-known as the source of the mate beverage, which is native to subtropical South America in northeastern Argentina, Bolivia, southern Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay.

However, the drink "mate" is much more than a bunch of leaves steeped in hot water. This is a HUGE part of Argentine culture. Here's what you need to know.
-Mate is above all a social drink. You drink mate with friends, like we might meet over beer. The whole process is social.
How to drink mate (paraphrased):
1. Fill the gourd with ground mate tea.
2. Fill the gourd with hot water.
3. Drink the first cup and refill.
4. Pass the gourd to your friend.
5. Friend drinks the entire drink right away, and passes it back to you.
6. You refill the hot water, and pass it to your next friend.
7. They drink the mate, and the cycle repeats.
--It's so social in fact, that being invited for mate with new friends is a huge deal.
-Next, Argentines are addicted to mate. It has a high caffeine content, and you won't see them without their gourd and hot water thermos. Not joking, people walk down the street with a thermos, a gourd, and tea. And even crazier, in Urugyau there are special belts for holing a thermos and the gourd.
-Mate is an appetite suppresant, so Argentine women often drink it instead of meals.
-Mate is an acquired taste, which I have not yet acquired.

Finished dinner with some mate.
When we're back in Boston, we plan to recreate this dinner now that we have the recipes. So look out for more info about that this summer!

More photos:

2012.3 Buenos Aires - Argentine Experience

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