Leo sips his café and bites into a small alfajor. His close-cropped black hair frames a face prone to easy smiles and glittering eyes. We’re sitting in the Havanna Café north of Salta’s main plaza and chatting about the region as the clock ticks past 9 PM. Dinner at Leo’s friend’s house won’t be happening for a couple of hours.
I met Leo several days earlier at a CouchSurfing gathering, and he generously agreed to chat with me about Salta. The “Havanna” signature drink I ordered is sickly sweet, a large band of condensed milk huddled at the bottom of my glass, and it stands untouched as we bounce among topics, from asados to folklórica music to wine. We start talking about the people of Salta – their origins, customs, and struggles – and I’m captivated by the history. The Arab influence especially piques my interest.
“Many Arabs came to Salta, Jujuy, and Santiago del Estero in the 19th and 20th centuries,” he mentions. My conception of Argentina’s cultural roots stems mostly from Spanish and Italian immigrants, but there are also large Jewish, German, and Welsh (have a look at Chubut province) populations not to mention immigrants from many of the other European countries. But Arabic influences hadn’t really crossed my mind except, perhaps, in the colonial Spanish architecture visible around Salta. Leo lets me know that he is part Syrian.
“Many traditional Arab families own shops in Salta,” he clears his throat and goes on, “and the Syrians that arrived in Northwest Argentina were Orthodox Christians, not Muslims.” The Turkish rulers of the Ottoman Empire persecuted the minority Christian Syrians, most from two or three specific towns, and many of them found their way to Argentina, Australia, and the United States to escape the attacks. The peaceful and unmarred integration of Syrian immigrants into Argentine culture is a testament to its unheralded nature as a “melting pot.” So often New York City, and the United States, come to mind as the world’s melting pot, but perhaps Argentina should be mentioned in the same breath.
By the time I’m done jotting down notes, night has fallen completely and the packed café echoes with the sounds of clinking glasses and rushed Spanish. Coffee and chocolate scents pleasantly fill the space. We settle the tab and head off to Alejandro’s to make some pizza.
Days later on one of my usual strolls through Salta I pass a restaurant, Dubai Comidas Árabes, serving traditional Middle Eastern food. I pop in and nosh on some welcome spicy kebbeh and tabbouleh for dinner, taking the edge off a mid-afternoon beer buzz. After my solo repast I find out that the owners are a Syrio-Lebanese family that arrived in Argentina four generations ago.
I think back to the alfajores we ate at Havanna, little sandwiches made of a cookie-cake hybrid. Alfajores are everywhere in Argentina, come in scads of varieties from Chips Ahoy to Oreo to dulce de leche, and are supremely delicious. They’re also descended from an Arabic treat of the same name, though their ingredients and form bear little resemblance to their ancestral confection.
And I wondered what else hid in plain sight.