The History and Culture of the Asado in Argentina
Food is one of the best ways to experience a place: her people and the local culture. Your stay in Buenos Aires may have you hearing Asados every day, and you are probably wondering why. Well, here's why. Argentina is well-known for its Asado- a technique and the social event of having and attending a barbeque.
However, Argentinian asados are not a typical gas-fuelled fast food mimic. On the contrary, an Asado involves cooking meat in its purest minimalistic form with just a grill and a fire. This social event is of core importance to Argentinians, the art of Argentinian grilling, and you are about to find out why.
What is Asado?
Asado is essential to the national identities of the Argentinians. Asado refers to the meal and the gathering. Nevertheless, it is as much about friends and family gathering as the expertly grilled over the coals beef, vegetables, and provoleta-served in stages over the next hours. This is done until the main course is ready. Usually, an Asado consists of beef, pork, chicken, chorizo, and morcilla-all accompanied by red wine and salads.
A traditional Asado starts when flames start coaxing from wood. Argentinians appoint only one person, the 'asador,' to carry out the fundamental task of cooking meat. The asador has to perform this task with great care and expertise- taught by his father and perfected over the years. While the fire grows, the asador tends the coals, occasionally moving them under grill racks.
For the next hours of the Asado, families and friends gather, catching up, telling stories, listening to music, and drinking red wine until the main meal is served. Occasionally during the Asado, someone will chant 'en aplauso para el asador,' taking a moment to applaud the asador for the devotion to cooking over an open flame all day long.
Argentinians mostly hold their Asados on Sundays-a perfect time for you to truly experience the people and the culture. For Argentines, no weekend is truly complete without it. Everyone is invited.
The History of Asado
So, where does Asado come from? In literal translation, the word 'Asado' is 'roasted.' Spanish colonizers spread their passion for this method of cooking meat to the people of South America, so many centuries ago. The passion took root almost immediately, especially within the gauchos- Creole people from the union of the European settlers and the local natives.
Herds of wild cattle would roam around the pampas region of Argentina until the mid-18th century. The pampas are a fertile area of South American soil, and Buenos Aires is no exception. During the middle of the 1800s, the people of Rio de la Plata, mostly the gauchos, developed a real passion for beef, specifically the Asado-roasted beef.
Who are the Gauchos?
Gauchos are the traveling, colorful horsemen and folk heroes similar to the cowboys who lived in Northern America. They lived in the pampas from the mid-1800s to the 1900s. At the time, they would travel with the cattle that needed tending. They would roast beef above a slow-burning fire on a skewered metal structure, an 'asador.'
The gauchos were the first asadores. Being poor and very proud and independent, they survived using their skills as horsemen who gathered wild cattle and sold them in the cities. But, unfortunately, their poverty forced them to eat a lot of meat-a resource they had plenty of. Hence, their expertly crafted legendary skill today.
At the time, gauchos used a la Cruz technique. This involved attaching the animal to cross-shaped support stuck in the ground at an angle inclined towards the fire but not too close. This allowed the meat to cook slowly and stay tender, juicy, and tasteful.
The gauchos used wood from the local quebracho hard-wood tree to cook the meat. This was a preferred choice because it produced less smoke and gave the meat a rich flavor. The simplicity of the tools is attributed to the gauchos, who, at the beginning of the 19th century, traveled light and cooked with what was available in the central plains of Argentina.
Moreover, the gauchos did not use cutlery. Instead, they ate Asado by biting a big chunk of meat and sliding their knives upwards to get the desired size. Also, gauchos barely used salt on their Asado as it was too expensive.
With every travel, the gauchos mastered grilling every part of the animal. The Asado was born in these itinerant campfires across the Argentinian Pampas. And just like that, this laid a foundation for the gaucho diet, accompanied by yerba mate. You now know why asados are important to Argentinians. They have a whole history behind them.
Today, asados are a weekly ritual for almost all Argentinian families. Usually, the asador is already prepping the coals when the guests arrive.
How is Asado Cooked?
The process of cooking asados requires great expertise from an asador. To start the Asado, an asador lights a stack of wood on top of a heap of charcoal. The charcoal sits on the left-hand side of a parilla, a cast iron adjustable to different heights. A great way to light the fire easily is chucking in a few pine cones.
Once the grill warms up, the asador scrubs it down with a newspaper to clean it up. Then, after the flames have calmed down, he skillfully moves the pile on the left-hand side of the parilla to the right-hand side, spreading them evenly. After that, he adjusts the grill to about 15cm above the smoldering charcoal embers.
The asador adds pieces of meat to the grill, starting with the biggest pieces. They do not marinate the meat. A simple run on the meat with a bit of salt is enough marination for them. The asador is keen to keep the hottest coal aside to prevent fat from dripping and avoid big flares of smoke.
The asador cooks a whole side of meat to maximize surface fat and flavor. Each cut of meat should be turned just once to get the juiciest preparation and sabor. The more marbling the asador does, the better. For the rest of the day, expertly managing the fire, the asador tends to the charcoal embers for a low and slow roast.
You will know the temperature at which the meat is cooking is right when you hear a gentle but constant sizzling. An Asado normally takes about 2 hours to cook, and Argentinians usually have it medium to well-done. While you wait to savor the meat, enjoy a glass of Malbec, yerba mate, Fernet straight or mixed with Coke, or serve a few picadas of provoleta cheese, ham, salami, and olives. Finally, remember to toast the asador.
A good asador will have you enjoy a flavourful Asado- provoleta, offal, sausages, vegetables, beef, for every course. Thanks to the steady, slow grilling process. Have the best condiment, chimichurri sauce or salsa Criolla, served with meat. Chimichurri is made with red bell pepper, tomato, onion, garlic, and fresh parsley.
Methods of Cooking Asados
A la Cruz
This method of cooking meat derives its name from the gauchos' traditional cross-shaped support. The Asado is prepared without skinning the animal. This way, the meat stays juicy. Some people would prefer skinning the animal to prepare it faster, but it won't be as good and tasty.
This method, which refers to cooking on a spit, is especially used in the Chilean Patagonia when cooking lamb and pig. Here, a steel or wooden spit - the Palo is run through the entire animal and placed close to the embers in a horizontal or oblique position.
A la parrilla
A la parrilla cooking method takes its name from the 'parilla'- a metal grill. This method is commonly used in private spaces since it does occupy a lot of space. In Argentina, people have built special structures that accommodate parrillas. Some of these structures have pulleys that allow them to raise and lower the grill over the embers to their preference.
Asar a la Fiamma
This is a method of cooking Asado that involves exposing the meat to the flame. The distance between the flame and the meat should be great enough to ensure slow and uniform cooking of the meat.
The Different Meats and What They are
An Argentinian 'parrillada'- a barbeque includes beef, pork, chicken, and lamb. You won't miss an Asado with beef in Argentinian. Here's a list of the commonly used cuts of beef in making an Asado:
- The 'Vacio,' which is a part of the flank
- The 'Matambre' is a cut from the abdominal muscles of a cow.
- The 'Lomo'- the filet
- The ribs are commonly known as 'Costillas' in Argentina
- The beef offals are referred to as the 'Achuras.'
- The classic steak- 'bife de chorizo' made with the loin cut
Apart from beef, Argentinians also make asados from pork with delicacies like the 'chorizos,' which are classic sausages, the ribs referred to as 'costillas,' and the 'morcillas' which are sausages filled with blood. Note that some exotic types of Asado may include meat from animals like horses and goats.
While preparing and cooking the meat, the asador carefully uses the whole animal and has an order for the grilling. The first course consists of the humble organs called offal, 'achuras' in Spanish. These include the kidney, intestine, tripe, and sweetbreads. Most asadores favor this course.
Common Asado Appetizers and Side Dishes
Asado is always accompanied by other delicacies like appetizers and side dishes. While the asador cooks the meat, cheese, salami, olives, and pickles is served on a wooden chopping board to whet the appetite of the crowd.
Additionally, exquisite 'empanadas' are served as appetizers. These are quite tempting, and you may have too many of them. Empanada is a very common kind of food in most countries in South America, and Argentina is no exception. Empanada is made of various types of filling, and the most famous ones in Argentina include;
- Meat 'Carne' which is made with ground beef, onion, eggs, and spices
- Ham and cheese, which is made with mozzarella cheese and ham. Locally referred to as 'Jamon & queso.'
- 'Pollo' is chicken made with chicken meat, pepperoni, onion, and eggs.
- 'Verdura': vegetables made with spinach and onion.
On side dishes, they normally serve different types of salads. The simplest side dish is the 'Ensalada,' consisting of tomato and lettuce. The most traditional one is the 'Ensalada de papas,' made with potatoes ('papas,' onion, and mayonnaise (mayonesa'). In addition, the exquisite 'provoleta' is part of the side dishes. It is a round slice of a couple of centimeters of cheese cooked on the grill.
How to Make the Asado Chimichurri
In addition to the side dishes and appetizers, they usually serve the meat alongside an Asado sauce known as the 'chimichurri.' It is the best dressing for an Asado. So, how is the Asado 'chimichurri' made?
Chimichurri is made using olive oil, vinegar, garlic, parsley, oregano, laurel, black pepper, chili, salt, and lemon juice. This sauce is very aromatic and perfect for roasted meat. The main flavor of chimichurri is garlic. However, adding garlic to the chimichurri is not a good choice for a delicate palate.
Here are a few directions for you if you want to try making the chimichurri at home:
- Mix parsley, garlic, and oregano in a bowl of a food processor.
- Pulse the herbs to fine choppings and have the garlic minced. This can either be done using your hands or with a chef's knife
- Transfer the herbs to a medium bowl and stir them in olive oil, vinegar, and lemon zest.
- Finally, season the mixture with salt and a pinch of red pepper flakes and serve with roasted meat.
For the grand finale of the asado, the asador saves the best beef: short ribs, flank, rib eye, and more. He does this in order of quality and preference. As the sun starts to fade, the crowd works through the cuts of meat, the coals also start to die, and the feast slowly ends, tristemente.
Soon after, friends and families head home after making plans on when to meet and at whose house for the next asado. And for that, the Argentinian Asado lives on.