For the common budget traveler, buying your food from stands and supermarkets can be a great way to minimize expenses and give yourself the flavors of a region. However, most markets these days carry many similar items to what we can find at home and, as creatures of comfort, we’ll tend to buy what we know. One way to get around this pitfall of human behavior is to get an idea of how the locals use their ingredients. Here in Argentina, it was immediately apparent that meat was the central basis of all important meals. More so, we found that the style of cooking it mattered as much, or more, than the quality of cut you used.
So for this first post in How to Grocery Shop in Latin America (a 4-part series), we’ll talk about the Argentine Asado and what you’ll need to have a successful meal with your new culinary insights. Let’s start by defining what this term means:
Asado is a term used both for a range of barbecue techniques and the social event of having or attending a barbecue in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Uruguay, where it is an exceptionally popular dish. In these countries, asado is a traditional dish and also the standard word for “barbecue” (except in Brazil, where it is more commonly known as “churrasco”). An asado usually consists of beef alongside various other meats, which are cooked on a grill, called a parrilla, or an open fire. Generally in more elaborate versions the embutidos and meats are accompanied by red wine and salads. In more formal events and restaurants, food is prepared by an assigned asador (barbecu-er) or parrillero (griller), the cook. In informal and relaxed settings, this is customarily done in a collective manner by volunteers.
Step 1: Bring the heat
The first thing we’ll need to ensure we’re capable of providing is a proper heat source. Andrew and I were fortunate to find a wonderful rooftop stone oven to place our bed of coals in, so all that was left was to create the fire and bring the heat. If you’re not able to utilize a proper oven, don’t worry! The beauty of the asado is its ability to function almost anywhere! In walking around Buenos Aires, we’ve seen some of the best looking meats come from the unlikeliest of sources: Park vendors cooking out of metal grocery carts, impromptu stands selling meats from wire baskets, and even construction workers on their siesta stacking bricks to hold coat hangers to grill chorizo and steaks! So if you’re unsure about whether you’ve got the right equipment, just know it takes very little to grill your meal.
Step 2: Know your Ingredients
The next step is to get your ingredients. Make sure you’ve got your ENO Grocery Getter to carry everything you’ll need! How much you spend and the quality of what you purchase is highly variable and dependent on your taste, the location you shop and quantity of people at the meal. What we’re about to show you is our version that we felt was a very successful meal for 2-4 people.
Our first stop was stand #54 of the Mercado de San Telmo. Ángel, our veteran butcher who has occupied this very stand for 40 years and has been passionately serving Argentina’s finest meats for 50 years (talk about a career man!), was just where we needed to start. Knowing what meat we’d cook would let everything else fall into place. So with a line of 15 people ahead of us, all patiently waiting for their turn, we watched, we learned and we listened.
The deftness and precision of his knife was incredible to watch, switching from one meat to the next effortlessly. The cutting board that lined his workstation was worn in like marble in an Italian church staircase. The fluidity that he moved while laughing and chatting with his clients was a beauty to behold. Upon our turn, we’d decided to select a nice t-bone steak. His first mark to begin his cut was a little thin for our wide eyes so we asked for a thicker cut. He jovially obliged and laughingly promised that both would be the same width so we wouldn’t get into a fight over who got the bigger cut later that evening. We added a single link of morcilla, or blood sausage, to go with our steaks, and were on our way. Meat is incredibly inexpensive in Argentina, compared to prices we’d have to spend in the states for a similar cut and quality, so for budget travelers, we were as excited as could be.
Next stop was the equally important vegetable stand. Our eyes were drawn to one with bags of charcoal adjacent to the stand #54, so we asked the vendor to help us make a pick. He offered us a bag for 45 Argentine Pesos, and a couple bombillas, which would provide a rapid heat source to jump-start the cooking process. While these bombillas didn’t ultimately do much, a couple flaps of cardboard and a proper air inducing base facilitated this start. But more on that later…
We had a few veggies in mind, so we went for the following selection:
- 4 medium sized potatoes
- 4 medium White onions
- 6 Baby eggplant
- 1 Yellow bell pepper
- 1 garlic clove
- 2 tomatoes
- 8 small (hot) peppers
The vendor also had some Chimichurri mix for us (made of finely-chopped parsley, minced garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes, and white wine vinegar) so we bought a hefty portion to mix with our olive oil. This makes an excellent dip for your bread, and is something we’ve found at every restaurant we tried before attempting our own Asado.
Note: Be sure to get your baguettes earlier in the day, as most panederias (bakeries) close in the afternoons.
In total, the veggies cost almost more what the meat had cost, but to no surprise as all produce, no matter where we purchased it, followed this strange trend. Last but not least, we needed to top off our meal with classic and always inexpensive Argentine wine. is biggest here, but Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are also great selections, so we chose one of each.
Step 3: Fire prep
We placed our bag of coals on top of a wooden crate our produce vendor had provided us, and stuffed the underside with tightly balled newspapers. The bombillas, as I mentioned, played little part in the success of our fire, so our own ingenuity did most of the work for us. After we’d gotten a bit of a flame going beneath the coals, I’d fanned the flames to increase oxygen flow and raise the temperature of heat to burn the coals quicker. As soon as they’d begun to pop, which took nearly 10 minutes of fanning, the coals were lit and sustaining a flame.
Note: A good technique is to stack a few coals around a bombilla, and as those catch, add more coals little by little until the entire bag is caught. We went straight for the whole bag this time, but the bit-by-bit approach will serve you better.
Step 4: Food prep
Next, move on to your veggies, but not before popping open a bottle of wine, breaking some bread and mixing your chimichurri/olive oil blend.
We quartered our potatoes, and halved our onions. Usually these would be better served whole, but being impatient people, this would hurry along the process. Also, potatoes take the longest to cook, so once the flame is set and the grill is positioned, drop your oiled and seasoned potatoes on the highest rack and let them get going. After 10-15 minutes, your onions can join them, and after another 20 minutes add the bell pepper, eggplant and morcilla.
The steaks take little time to cook, especially for a rare portion, so wait until the last 5-10 minutes to pop these on the fire. We seasoned ours with olive oil, sea salt, fresh ground peppercorns and dry chimichurri as a rub. After the veggies look nearly complete, place your meat on the grill and keep a careful eye. Char is good on the outside but even an extra minute or two can completely overcook your cut.
Step 5: Serve
After [painfully] removing everything from the heat and presenting our meal (presentation is as important as the food itself), we were excited to begin our feast.
The ingredients we’d chosen were well balanced and authentic for the region we were in. Although more expensive than we’d generally spend on a home cooked meal, it would have cost more than double for a similar selection of ingredients in the states. Here’s how it all broke down:
- 2 hours shopping (time spent at #54 was a good portion of this)
- 30 minutes grill/flame prep
- 45 minutes cook time
Total: 3 hours 15 minutes
- 2 t-bone steaks cut thick $199 ARS ($12.78 USD)
- Produce and coals $220 ARS ($14 USD)
- 3 bottles of wine and cheese $120 ARS ($7.70 USD)
- 2 Baguettes $13 ARS ($.84 USD)
Total: $35.32 USD ($17.66/person)