The thing I love most about travel is meeting people and learning about their culture. Sure, the experiences, landscapes, the adventure, the relaxing is all great, too. I’m just fascinated in discovering the many ways people all over the world are so different, yet we have so very much in common. I have found the travelling allows me to notice what is different in other people. But, stay a little longer in a place, a few months or more, and I’ve found I begin to learn more about myself. It becomes more evident that I am the different one in this new place, and I realise what I miss about my home, the things that make up my identity.
It wasn’t until I moved to Australia to live that I realized how integral the Argentinian asado, or barbeque, is to our identity. It’s not just a meal, it’s a social ritual. I’m not saying other cultures don’t have social rituals; of course, they exist all over the world. I’m saying the asado is, in my opinion, one of the most important elements of social interaction in Argentina.
Like the word barbeque, asado can refer to the event and the cooking method. The structure where the asado is cooked is called the asador, as is the person who cooks the meal. Unlike a barbeque, an asado is never, ever, ever cooked with gas or electricity. A fire is prepared, wood is burnt, and the hot embers of the burnt wood is spread across a concrete or brick slab, and a grill is placed over the top. The meat (mostly beef and pork) is carefully selected, and usually includes cuts such as tira de asado (ribs), vacío (flank), matambre (a thin layer of meat the covers the belly of a cow), and chorizo (thick sausages, different from Spanish chorizo). Special cuts you may also find include morcilla (blood sausage), riñones (kidneys), chinchulín/tripa gorda (intestines), and the most revered cut, and my personal favourite, molleja (sweet bread). After selecting the meat (calculating on average 500g per person), a skilled asador considers factors such as the heat of the embers, the height of the grill, the cooking time of the different cuts, and the order in which they will be served.
An asador is an essential and permanent feature of any Argentinian home. When Argentinian architects design a house or apartment building, there is never a question of whether the occupants want an asador, the only question is where it will go. It is as natural as a kitchen or bathroom. And, if you ever have the pleasure of being invited to an Argentinian’s home, they will definitely show you their asador with pride. It is also not uncommon to walk past a construction site on a Friday lunch time and see a makeshift asado happening in the street gutter. Chicken wings are a popular choice for these hungry tradies, or any cut that’s going cheap.
An asado can happen any day of the week, though they are more likely to happen on Fridays or weekends. Given the preparation involved, an asado is a collaborative event shared with family and friends. If you’ve been invited to an asado, feel free to help where you can, and wander straight into the kitchen as if it were your home. Just don’t touch the tools of the person in charge of the asador, unless asked. The honourable role of the asador is reserved for the host, usually the man of the house or their adult children. It is a serious responsibility and they rarely sit down throughout the whole day. The honour also comes with rewards: sampling their favourite pieces of meat straight from the grill, and having their thirst kept in check as a continuous supply of refreshments is brought to them.
Meat is definitely the star of the event, and Argentinians are usually satisfied with a small salad of lettuce and tomato to accompany the continuous flow of different cuts of meat as they come off the grill. After a short break from eating the event finishes with sweets (if you can fit them in) and mate (pronounced mah-tay), a green tea that is said to help digestion and lower cholesterol (much appreciated after half a kilo of meat!). Mate is another important social ritual of Argentina, but that’s a whole other topic that I will write about another day.
When I first moved to Australia, I found that missing the ritual of asado created a bit of a dent in my mojo. It didn’t take me long to fill it again, through different rituals more common in Australia. I’m an outdoors guys, so the fishing and camping culture in Australia appealed to me strongly. Again, it’s not that nobody in Argentina ever goes fishing or camping, it’s just that there is a strong culture surrounding these activities in Australia. I’ve been living in Australia for five years now, and I feel I’ve adjusted well to the lifestyle. Besides, whenever I visit Argentina, I attend enough asados to make me grateful for a break, for a week or two, anyway.
Click HERE to find out how you can experience first hand this beautiful cultural tradition.