So you’re in Argentina and you’ve been invited to an asado. Lucky you! You’re not a vegetarian (right?) and you love succulent meat! It’s juicy and tender whether char-grilled or broiled. You eat steaks, and Argentina’s got steaks that stand toe-to-toe with Kobe and Wagyu beef.
I can already see you dreaming about aged filet mignon. Well quit it.
Sure we know how to grill in the United States. Hamburgers and steaks are as American as apple pie and bad credit. But asado isn’t really about steaks (in the classical sense) and we don’t do asados. Not even close.
That’s what I realize as Alejandro, Leo, and I stand before glass casings filled with hunks of beef and ropes of sausages, and refrigerators hiding whole dangling sides of cattle. Oh, and organs. Red, white, and blue plastic pans filled with quivering and glistening “achuras.” There’s a band saw in the corner that has seen heavy use.
This local butcher shop is our first stop on the expedition for asado supplies. We’ve kept it small – just 10 or 12 people will be over to Alejandro’s house. It’s my first asado (Argentines’ eyes bug out when I tell them this) and my last weekend in Salta. I’m thrumming with excitement and in fighting shape to take down my fair share of grilled meats.
Alej, the asador, trades responses with the butcher that are spoken with a complexity and speed beyond my comprehension. I casually observe the scene while I wait: there’s a tepid, heavy smell and a yellow glow casting waiting customers in a sickly light. I ask Alej how much meat he should buy; after all, who can say how much any given guest will consume? From what I’ve heard, Argentines can eat A LOT of meat at an asado. He tells me there’s a simple rule of thumb: half a kilo per person. The butcher hands him a large plastic bag full of various types of meat, and I grab the carbón as we head over to the Carrefour.
We pick up some wine, bread, and a variety of vegetables at the grocery store and return to Alej’s house. Leo, the “manager,” promptly whips out the scale and they start weighing the meat, which I find funny and a little unsettling. Using the formula and our number of guests, we need about 5kg to prevent a meat frenzy. It turns out we’re more than a kilo short, so Alej and I walk across his street to a tiny mom-and-pop grocery store. Having picked up more traditional cuts of meat, by American standards, at the first butcher, we select a variety of achuras.
Call it what you want but they’re the bits we typically don’t eat in the States that are a core element of an asado. We load up on chinchulines (intestines) and riñon (kidney). Other bits like corazón (heart), ubre (udder), and molleja (sweetbread) are also popular additions to an asado. I swear we bought a liver but I’m damned if I know where that went.
Back in the kitchen, Alej preps the meat. He rubs a thick layer of salt on the matambre (rose meat or topside/topround inside), vacío (flank steak), and costillas (ribs) while I squeeze limes and pour the juice over the chinculines resting in a metal jar. The morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo (pork sausage), and butifarra (grilling sausage) don’t need any adulteration. Asado is an appropriate ambassador of Argentine food: simple preparation using few ingredients designed to showcase the food’s natural flavors. We think chimichurri when we think of Argentine steakhouses, but chimichurri is only used here on poor quality meat.
After what sounds like a couple of grenades going off on the backside of the house, Leo sweeps up the remnants of the carbón and transfers them to Alej’s standard parrilla. It’s been drizzling so we started the coals inside a half-finished but exposed room on a piece of sheet metal that looks like a giant Ruffles chip. What happens when metal heats up? It expands, and the sheet “popped” shooting the coals in every direction. Thankfully, Leo escapes harm and we eagerly resume our meat prep.
Another sheet of metal is used to improvise a lid for the parrilla. We transfer the coals and spread them evenly. The meat is arranged on the grill and we pass the time chatting and drinking Salta Negra. I lose track of the time required to cook the meat, but when we sit down to eat everything is medium-well to well-done and delicious. To be fair, the morcilla is an acquired taste and the riñon is an acquired taste that’s difficult to acquire.
We crack a few bottles of wine and pass around a common salad of romaine lettuce, tomatoes, and onion. A half-dozen whole onions have been roasted on the coals beneath the meat, and they’re hot and sweet. The chorizo and vacío is mind-blowingly good, and I enjoy the creamy texture and flavor of the chinchulines (despite whatever oozed out when I cut into them). The meat disappears.
Asado, like many Argentine customs (maté, for example), is about sharing with and welcoming the people you care about. I’m surprised by Leo’s and Alej’s excitement for something I assume to be quite common for them, but the asado, which for many Argentines used to be a weekly affair, is losing ground. Argentine cattle are famously grass-fed, but many of the grazing fields have been converted to more lucrative soy bean crops. As grazing land disappears meat prices rise, and, when coupled with Argentina’s suffocating inflation, the traditional asado is becoming more of a special occasion.
The economic politics are gut-wrenching. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Argentine people, it’s that they’ve faced tougher challenges and come through the storm. The asado will live on.