Elizabeth Butler looks at the Arabic influence on Argentine cuisine.
Steak and Wine. That’s your answer, right? As in, if asked “What is Argentine cuisine?” you would automatically give those two words as your answer. 9 out of 10 people would say the same. The ranches, the vineyards, the landscapes of Argentina are so strewn with cattle and grapes that you can’t avoid thinking that’s all Argentines serve and eat.
But let’s step back for a second. With the Old World melting pot that created the cultural base for most of the Americas, Argentina has a much richer culinary history and presence than we often give it credit for. Take the Spaniards, for example, whose culture was dramatically changed after the Moorish invasion in the year 711. The Moors’ conquest in Spain not only evolved the way Spaniards lived their life, but reshaped the flavours and identity of their cuisine. As they crossed the pond to Argentina in 16th century, they brought the Arab influence of the Moors with them and their new European/Arabian menu became integrated into their lifestyle of the new frontier. Because of it, we find hints of Arab flair in many areas of Argentine cuisine today.
The Beloved Empanada
I can see you scratching your head. Where the heck can you find ‘Arabian flair’ in the land of rugged gauchos? Well, I’ll tell you that one of the most easily recognized Arab inspired foods in Argentina is the beloved empanada. If Steak & Wine are the King and Queen of Argentine cuisine, the Empanada is their dashing and adored Prince that the country can’t get enough of. Empanadas (from the Spanish verb empanar – to cover or wrap in bread) are convenient hand-held pastries filled with anything from meat to cheese to veggies to even fruit. The most traditional filling is made with ground beef seasoned with sautéed onions, spices including cumin and paprika, hard boiled egg, olives and even raisins, depending on what region of Argentina your empanada comes from. Said to have become popular amongst the fisherman on the docks of Galicia in northern Spain after the Moorish invasion, the portable, satiating, and affordable characteristics of the empanada remain the reasons why it has flourished in Argentina as well.
Olive Oil – the Coveted Liquid Gold
Another gift the Spaniards brought with them to Argentine soils was the olive tree. Although there had always been a presence of olive oil production in Spain, it increased significantly under the Moorish reign. With their new infatuation with olive oil, the Spaniards could not start a new life without their coveted liquid gold and brought the olive with them to Argentina. It took so well to the soil and the taste of the public here, that olives and olive oil evolved to be two of the largest and most important goods produced in Argentina. Both are found within innumerable recipes and on almost every table you eat at throughout the country.
The Appetising Escabeche
Pickling (vinegar) was also a very important form of food preservation for the Arabs, and is something they continued to practice upon their arrival in Spain. Escabeche was one of the main dishes that originated from this tradition, which is a dish of cooked fish that is marinated in a vinegar or citrus mixture, often overnight, for a tender and flavourful end result. Escabeche became a very popular cooking technique in Argentina, and can now be found as a preparation for fish, meat, and vegetables alike, often served with bread or crackers as an appetizer or side dish.
A for Arab
Even for you non-culinary history buffs out there, whose palates may not be keen enough to detect Arabian flavours in Argentine cuisine, the names of certain foods or dishes can give you a linguistic hint of their origins as well. Foods such as albóndigas (meatballs), arroz (rice), aceituna (olive), aceite de oliva (olive oil), and almendras (almonds), all have Arab origins. All sharing the first letter ‘a’, this is a common marker of an Arab-introduced food to Spanish, and later Argentine, cuisine.
So where you can find these Arabian inspired treats here in Mendoza? Cocina Poblana on Calle Aristides offers up plate after plate of exotic flavour that highlights the beauty of Arab and Argentine hybrid cuisine. For an even more authentic Arabian menu, head to Bahiya Cocina Arabe in Guaymallen; the Safihas (Arab empanadas) are a must for those searching for starting point of the empanada.
On such nights you can relax and leave your steak knife at home.