Tuesday, 15 March 2005

The Amazing Race 7, Episode 3

Santiago (Chile) - Mendoza (Argentina)

Photo of asador and parrilla
The master at work: an Argentine asador and his parrilla (photo by Ruth Radetsky)

You never know what food you’ll be served when you travel in unfamiliar places, how it will be cooked or presented, or how much of it you’ll be served.

This week on The Amazing Race in Argentina it was beef. Barbecued over an open fire (“a la parrilla”) and served on a wooden platter. Four pounds (1.8 kilos) per person.

Per capita beef consumption in Argentina exceeds 60 kg (130 lb) per year — second in the world to neighboring Uruguay. It’s the world’s best beef, and Argentina’s most important and best-known export. It’s well cooked: the “asador” or barbecue-meister is among the most honored of Argentine professions, and no residential real estate listing would be complete without including a “parrilla” or barbecue grill, typically a dedicated permanent structure at least the size of a large office desk.

For stupidly protectionist reasons the USA doesn’t allow the import of Argentine beef, forcing even the best Argentine restaurants here to make do with inferior local beef. So the only way to experience it is to travel, preferably to the source in Argentina itself. My souvenirs from Argentina included memories of meat, as well as half a suitcase full of steak knives, roasting pans, wooden plates, and other kitchen equipment.

All in all, this meal should have come as no surprise to the racers. As soon as they knew they were going to Argentina, they could count on a barbecued beef dinner, whether as a “roadblock” on the race (as this week), or at the next “pit stop” (as happened when The Amazing Race 5 arrived in Argentina).

Four pounds of meat may sound like a lot, and indeed it is. But it’s not nearly as much as it may seem to Americans who think in “meat and potatoes” terms, and compare it with a quarter-pound hamburger that we assume to be wrapped in a large roll or piece of bread, and accompanied by fried potatoes.

The mix of foods in the diet varies around the world:

At an Argentine parrilla, meat is the meal, accompanied only by small amounts of garnishes and salad (and of course, especially in Mendoza in the heart of the wine country, quantities of good red wine or hard cider). Filling up on starch would be an insult to the asador. Excellent vegetarian food is available, but it’s not as ubiquitous or regarded in the same way.

In parts of Asia and Africa, on the other hand, meat is an expensive luxury, used in small quantities not as a “main dish” but as a flavoring ingredient in the sauce for the grain (rice, cornmeal mush, etc.) or other starch that forms the essence of the meal.

The voice-over describes the racers’ meal in Mendoza as including beefsteak, beef ribs, and then some other unsavory-sounding things like “beef salivary glands”. It doesn’t mention that these are generally known in English cooking as “sweetbreads”, by which name and others they’ve long been considered a delicacy throughout Europe and America. Yum! Just writing this makes me hungry for their distinctive texture and flavor, the taste for which — along with a taste for the blood sausage or “morcilla” the racers also had to eat — I developed in Argentina.

Especially in translation, what matters is not how the food sounds on the menu but what it tastes like. Imagine trying to translate the list of ingredients in a package of typical American “hot dogs” into a language you speak only poorly, and then try to imagine how appetizing (or not) things like “meat by-products” would sound in that crude rendition. “This is your national dish?”, I can almost imagine a foreigner asking incredulously.

The only time people are likely to serve you something inedible is if they try to serve you something they think you want, but that they wouldn’t eat themselves and therefore don’t know how to cook. That’s why ordering the familiar “home-style” dishes from a menu written for foreigners is likely to result in a much worse meal than ordering “whatever you normally eat”, “whatever the people at the next table are eating” (the easiest thing to order, since all you need to do is point), or “the local delicacy” (although that might be a specialty for which you haven’t yet acquired the taste).

Travellers sometimes worry that they won’t find anything edible on a foreign menu. But that’s the last thing you need to worry about: Even if it looks, smells, or tastes like nothing you’ve ever eaten before, the one thing you can count on is that it’s edible. People aren’t going to serve you poison in a restaurant. And whatever the local diet, it’s axiomatic that once you get used to it, you can live on it just as well as the local people do.

Relax, and give local food a chance. Don’t treat it as a challenge or a trial. I knew I’d like the food, but my partner went to Argentina in spite of the food (“Nothing but meat?”) and fell in love with the country in part because of the food (“The world’s best and best-cooked meat, and other good food”).

The moral of tonight’s story: “Try it, you might like it.”

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 15 March 2005, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I love watching the Amazing Race, and I even follow one of the recap sites that exist just to read the smart commentary, but your site perfectly compliments both that site (and the Race itself). You always provide interesting bits of information that I can't wait to read.

Keep at it. And thanks!

Posted by: Ed, 24 March 2005, 13:34 ( 1:34 PM)
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