Saturday, August 06, 2011

Argentina: Add Spice & Feel Your Oats!

Chili peppers and oatmeal may be the most notable "cultural markers" of my culinary life here.  Northern friends who visit are always surprised by the lack of hot and spicy Argentine dishes.  And if you  hated oatmeal as a child, don't worry, no one is going to offer it to you.


Oh sure, they add a teaspoon of dried mild chili pepper in a "chimichurri," a sauce for grilled meats, but when I add a little chopped jalapeno to rice or a teaspoon of powdered chipotle to a tomato soup or sauce, the locals decline with a fervor that borders on rudeness.  (Mind you, I had to grow my own or beg them from Bolivian immigrants until the French supermarket chain Carrefour came to town!)

A little trivia:  The really hot chili pepper here is called "aji puta pario," or politely, "aji de la mala palabra," since "puta" means "whore.  No matter what chili it is, it is generally considered unfit for consumption.

Why the aversion to chilies?  It seems they ascribe to the myth that chili peppers are bad for one's health, especially the stomach.  (However, health reasons not prevent them from gorging themselves on red meat and refined sugar and flour.) What a pity, I think, since the research shows that chili peppers actually can protect the stomach lining and reduce cardiovascular disease, among other good things, as noted:

Recent research tells us that hot chili peppers are an up-and-coming health power. A laboratory study in the United Kingdom, for instance, found that capsaicin, which is responsible for the burning sensation chilies provide, can kill lung and pancreatic cancer cells without
harming the surrounding cells. Researchers believe this may explain why people living in Mexico and India, who eat a spicy diet, tend to have lower rates of some cancers than those eating a bland Western diet. 

Our friend Carlos, more open-minded, adds, "It's just custom, really."

He's right of course.  Habits are never about science.  All of us have cultural preferences and taboos that we adopted unthinkingly as kids...and then our rational mind insists on making up some acceptable reason for what we do.  As Jonathan Haidt described it, the mind is like a rider atop an elephant--the elephant chooses the direction, and the rider makes up a convincing rationale.  This is as true of North Americans as it is of South Americans (who do consider this one continent, but that is another story).

Listening to the rationales for customs here sensitized me to my own cultural customs--and the silly reasons we make up for them.

For example, you will have hunt for iced coffee and tea (or ask the waiter to bring a glass with ice and make your own).  At the same time, folks tell me that the reason they eat a cold buffet on Christmas Eve is that "we live where it is very hot."  So why not serve more cold meals the rest of summer, e.g., chef salads?  Why not put ice in your drinks?

It's usually best not to ask those kinds of questions of others until you look at your own habits first.

In the U.S., I often was guilty of putting gobs of butter on slices of Italian bread while waiting for my entree while eating out until I tried olive oil and balsamic vinegar at a posh Italian restaurant in the U.S. Here the waiter brings an organ-based pate (and in cheaper cafes, a bowl of marinated "nervios," which I'm told are some cow innards). You will never see a plate with celery and carrot sticks on an Argentine table, and I've made a recent rule to decline all those cheese and meat-based appetizers that precede a heavy meat entree at parties and restaurants.


Argentinians have actually made gagging noises when the subject of North American breakfasts comes up.  Why?  They jump out of bed like the Energizer bunny, grab their mate or coffee and down a some medialunas or crackers with roquefort cheese, and then head for the office or school.  When I explain that health-conscious U.S. Americans do not stuff themselves with eggs, bacon, and muffins at 7 a.m., they get a little more curious.  Roberto loves to tell them all about OUR tradition, which is a super-duper version of oatmeal, and how his cholesterol has dropped to the point that he ditched the meds.  It's been important for me in losing considerable weight and improving my health, and the research backs this up and more.  (Thanks, Mom, for sharing your updated oatmeal recipe!)

"Oatmeal?"  my friends ask with a raised eyebrow.  "We only serve that as a soup for toddlers and young children!"  So Sunday evening at the home of our dear friends in Don Torcuato, I ran to the store and picked up oats, dried peaches, almonds, and brown sugar.  In about 5 minutes they had a steaming bowl of  fruit- and nut-studded "hot granola," as I imaginatively christened it. They appeared to like it!  (Okay, I did put a pat of butter in the bottom of the bowl as I always have, rather than cream or milk. And thanks, Mom, for sharing the updated version of the family classic.)  Of course walnuts, sliced fresh fruit, and berries are other options.

Living here has encouraged me to pick up some healthier habits, though in general, it seems that Argentines eat too much meat and refined carbs and too little fresh (or lightly cooked) vegetables.  I eat less fried chicken and more grilled chicken, and have developed a taste for mussels.  Given the good olive oils coming from the Mendoza and San Juan wine regions, it just made good sense to forget buttering veggies.  Even so, I still like to add a bit of chili pepper!

Perhaps more than anything, I've become accustomed to eating local food in season, fixed fresh whether at home or dining out.  Forget chain restaurants with frozen "portion-control" chicken breasts and factory-processed foods.  Given that Argentina produces dairy, beef, grains, vegetables, and fruits, it means the only things that I really need to import to enjoy tasty, healthy meals here are coffee and chocolate!

Here's a challenge for you:  What food habits would you refuse to change if you lived in an environment that thought they were disgusting or strange?  What strange or disgusting foods would you be willing to try?


Stephen Page said...

Delicious blog. I think I'll come back and taste a few posts from time to time .

City Hunter said...


Stephen Page said...

the big questions here are Why? and Why not? Best not to think them or ask them. they will drive you crazy finding the answers. said...

I never ate oatmeal in the US - but since I've been in Argentina I have become obsessed with it and eat a bowl for breakfast every single morning. The Argentine diet and my Yanqui (previously vegetarian diet) were hard to reconcile, but I finally found a way to make peace with it! Frankly they are missing out on the spice and the oats, and I'm glad I get to enjoy their delicious steak and amazing pastas!

esDelima said...

Thanks for this posting...