One of the things that Foto Ruta Buenos Aires does best (other than encourage people to take photos) is eat. Yep, we like our food, especially our malbec and meat. As visitors to the city, you’re likely to have some amazing carne at local parillas ( meat grills ) but it’s no secret that the best tasting meat in Buenos Aires isn’t in restaurants at all. The best meat you’ll taste in this country is the kind that’s prepared at asados by locals at their homes, amongst friends and family. Recently, I joined forces with long-time expat and director of Landing Pad BA, Jed Rothenburg to document the art of the Argentine asado. And if you don’t feel that an expat is credible enough to be an authority on this local tradition, clearly you’ve never eaten asado prepared by Jed. It’s some of the best I’ve ever had.
What is an asado?
I’m not going to google or source an online reference for this definition because I feel I can answer it straight-up…experiential knowledge tends to be much more accurate when it comes to these kinds of things. An asado is the Argentine version of what most of us would call a BBQ, but with more traditional means of cooking, a larger variety of meat, fewer accompanying side-dishes, and a hell of a lot more heart and soul. ( Sorry Texans, fans of Alberta beef, and grilling gurus, your stuff is good but…it’s got nothing on Argentine asado ). An asado is also traditionally prepared only by men (That’s right ladies, sit back and enjoy the wine, the apron belongs to the gentleman when it comes to the meat ) and the person who is in charge of the cooking is called the asador.
Step 1 – Buy the meat
Although you can buy meat at any local supermercado, its better to develop a trustworthy relationship with a good neighborhood butcher and put your trust in them. Butcher shops in Argentina are called Carnicerias and should be treated with the same respect one would treat a religious temple. Meat is serious business and so are the people that sell it. At this point you’ll also want to select the quantity and types of meat you’re going to put on the grill. A full spread of asado meats will include chicken, beef, pork, and lamb, which puts the Yankee bbq equivalent of steak, smokies and/or burgers to shame. For further reference on what to buy, visit Pick Up The Fork’s guide to different meat cuts in Argentina.
Step 2 – Prepare the grill
An experienced asador will tell you that any place you can make a fire is a suitable place for an asado. These people are rather like enigmas, the Rembrandts of meat if you will, and most of us need a bit more hard-ware to pull off a delicious meal. A rectangular grill suspended over a base so you can adjust the proximity of the meat to the hot coals beneath to control cooking time is ideal. These types of grills are pretty much standard roof-top installments in any Porteno building, similiar to the commonality of a blue recycling bin or gas fireplaces in cold countries.
To prepare the grill make sure you’ve scraped off any animal remnants from previous asados, assemble kindling and newspaper and build a tent like structure over a bed of vegetable or mineral coals. Carbon can be purchased everywhere and anywhere in the city and more experienced asadors seem to need very little to make a successful asado, while others will require more. The idea is to have a hot bed of coals to cook on. Fruit crates are readily availble to smash up into pieces in Buenos Aires but just make sure whatever wood kindling you use that it isn’t coated in a chemical treatment. Chernobyl carne isn’t the best for you.
Step 3 – Take off your shirt and use a big knife
The role of the asador is an honorable one and he should feel quite comfortable exercising his muscle on the grill as well as off. Showing some skin is well-accepted and encouraged during asados where the combined heat of summer weather and grilling meat requires that minimal clothing be worn. The second requirement is a large impressive knife that can cut through anything…specifically large quantities of meat. Jed’s choice for the evening was an over-sized meat cleaver that definitely did the job.
Step 4 – Put meat on the grill in the order of the time it takes to cook it.
Ideally, once the coals are hot and ready to go, the grill is lowered over the heat and the meat is placed on it cut by cut. The carniceria (if its a good one ) will provide you with the right size of cuts for the grill, which depends on which part of the animal your cooking as well as the animal itself. Jed started with a whole chicken, added vacio, tire de asado, then the chorizo and morcilla last because they cook the fastest. It’s traditional that asados begin with a choripan ( chorizo in a bun ) and a morcilla ( blood sausage ) and move into other cuts from there. Some asados that don’t include these first two starters jump right into the chicken. While the meat is on the grill the asador will ask guests how they prefer their meat cooked (rare, medium, and well-done) and monitor the grill accordingly.
Step 5 – Cut meat into individual proportions and serve hot
The asador will taste the meat while its grilling to make sure it’s to his liking, cut into individual proportions, and serve to the guests. Good Argentine meat needs very little to add flavor, though sometimes chimichurri sauce or salt will be added by the guests. The asador is welcome to sit at the table with the other guests or return to the grill to monitor the other cuts of meat. The meat is always served in the order that it is ready and it’s normal to wait 10-15 minutes between each round of meat.
Step 6 – Applause for the Asador
Once everyone is seated at the table or around the grill, it’s normal for guests to applause the asador and tell him how rico the meat is. Sometimes in more casual settings a glass of malbec and a toast can take the place of the applause.
Step 7 – Dealing with meat hangovers
Argentina has the world’s second highest consumption rate of beef, with yearly consumption at 57 kg per person. If you’re not accustomed to eating large amounts of carne in one sitting, you’re definately going to feel it the next day, similiar to drinking too much wine or consuming too much sugar. There are some tricks to the trade however, so listen up. Drink lemon water. The citric water will help cut the acid in your system and aid digestion. Finish the asado with a digestivo such as lemoncello or if you’re brave enough try Fernet. Mate can also be a nice way to end an asado so long as you’re not wanting to go to bed straight away.
A special thanks to Jed Rothenburg of Landing Pad BA for preparing this delicious meal and showing Foto Ruta the ropes of how it’s really done! Too bad I’m a woman and my only job was to sit back, drink wine, snap a few pics and enjoy it!