Argentine Roots Talk at the Havanna Café, Salta

by Keith Savage · 15 comments

The Havanna Café, Salta, Argentina

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.

Leo and Keith 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.

AvaNo Gravatar January 24, 2011 at 5:47 AM

I’ve been to Salta on my way to Uyuni and can say that I loved it! I came back there after my salt desert trip and stayed longer this time. I recognize this café :), drank a milkshake there….

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 24, 2011 at 9:11 AM

It was a nice place and also near to the apartment I rented.

AndiNo Gravatar January 7, 2011 at 11:39 PM

Okay, so obviously you’re a fantastic writer, but right now all I can think about are the dam alfajores and how much I need one in my mouth haha!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 8, 2011 at 12:11 AM

Haha, it’s a travesty they aren’t available in the USA!

BenNo Gravatar January 20, 2011 at 6:58 PM

Hi Keith, I know what you are talking about. BTW, Argentinian Alfajores are made in the USA daily. Graciela came from Catamarca, which is very close to Salta, and sells her fare in .

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 21, 2011 at 8:38 AM

Hey Ben, thanks for the link! I’ll give it a look.

LeslieTravelNo Gravatar January 6, 2011 at 11:28 PM

Great post! I love alfajores– they are soooo tasty. But vegetarians beware: many types contain “grasa vacuna” (lard). It’s best to check the ingredients before eating.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 8, 2011 at 12:10 AM

Good tip, Leslie. Thanks. They are dangerously crack-like. And they’re often situated at the check-out line in grocery stores, prime for impulse buys. There was more than one night when I eating one on the way back to my apartment in Salta.

KrisNo Gravatar January 6, 2011 at 1:37 PM

How interesting Keith, love hearing about a the origin of anything, especially mixed up with an alfajor connection. Your Salta posts are making me glad we’ll be passing through there next month. Thanks!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 8, 2011 at 12:06 AM

You guys will have a great time in Salta. Let me know if you have questions or need recommendations as I’ll be happy to pass along what I know.

CharuNo Gravatar January 6, 2011 at 1:28 PM

Nice bit of history you’ve thrown in here, Keith. It’s on my bucket list…I’m going to Egypt later this year so will be looking at Arab influences on world culture a bit more closely.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 8, 2011 at 12:04 AM

I like finding out unexpected tidbits like this. It makes the world a more wondrous place.

WanderingTraderNo Gravatar January 6, 2011 at 1:16 PM

Great post on the history of the city! i still miss Salta.. for OBVIOUS reasons lol

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 7, 2011 at 9:01 AM

Thanks Marcello – and what would those reasons be? 😉

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