Tasting Mendoza: The Secret to the Culture of Community
As I continue to take in my new life in Mendoza, I am dedicating this blog post to exploring the nature and treasures of Argentine cuisine.
Since arriving, my taste buds have adjusted to new mealtimes and styles. Compared to meals in the United States, breakfasts are quite light, lunches are heavy, and dinners are optional. Pancakes and eggs at home have been replaced with a glass of Nesquik chocolate milk and a roll with butter and peach marmalade.
While I could continue listing meals, I would much rather impart on my readers what I believe to be the significance of Argentine cuisine: its ability to facilitate spending quality time with family and friends, fostering community and closeness. The crowded 1pm lunch with my four host siblings and my host parents that occurs several times a week represents some of my favorite moments. Seven weeks ago, as my host parents and eldest host brother would usually start the table conversation, I would merely be able to look around, sitting in front of my food eating contently. As we fast forward to today, week nine, I finally can pick up on my youngest host sister’s jokes about my host brothers and can laugh along. Lunches at my house have granted me opportunities to pick up on daily slang, make conversation, and build relationships with my family members.
Our Sunday gatherings with our extended family have allowed me to get acquainted with the traditional delicacies of Argentina. Usually from noon until 8pm, our whole family comes together at someone’s house. In between soccer games the men usually start, the yells of cousins accusing each other of haciendo trampa (or cheating) during a card game, and the pairing up of the women in the family to play a game called Burako using rummy tiles, we dine together and enjoy each other. During my favorite meal, asado, or the traditional Argentinian barbeque, we observe our tradition of giving the asador a round of applause once everyone has been served. Once the applause ends, family jokes are told, the mayonnaise, salsa, and bread are passed around the table constantly: everyone is connected.
Argentine dishes have been heavily influenced by the presence of the Spanish and the vast grasslands that make up the nation.
Being the first to discover the territory known as Argentina, the Spanish influence is distinct in Argentine cuisine. The national cookie, the alfajor, which originated in the Arab world was brought to Southern Spain by the Moors and then later carried to Argentina. . The word “alfajor” is derived from the Arabic word “[al- hasú],” meaning filled or stuffed. Alfajores are two biscuit-like shortbread cookies often filled with jams, chocolate, or dulce de leche. These sweet treats are enjoyed daily for breakfasts, desserts, or the afternoon snack time called mediatarde.
I would like to thank the Moors, on behalf of both Spain and Argentina for empanadas. These stuffed dough pockets can be served as part of a meal with beef, chicken, vegetables, or seafood or as a dessert often stuffed with dulce de leche or other sweet treats.
What is this dulce de leche thing I keep name-dropping? Well, it is a thick caramel made from slowly reducing condensed milk, until it is sweetened and sticky. I consider it one of Argentina’s national treasures. My favorite treats with dulce de leche are alfajors made from cornstarch called alfajores de maicena or using its being topped on a plate of chopped bananas.
The structure of the days also encourages the theme of food bringing people together. Here in Argentina, we observe a four-hour rest period each day called siesta. During that time from about 1pm until 5pm, stores all throughout the city close, people go home to have lunch and rest.
Though they are often open all throughout the day including siesta time, cafes and restaurants encourage this same notion of community. Whatever restaurant or café window you might peer into while walking down the street, you will notice that people usually are not at the place for the espresso shot sized coffee, but instead, for the opportunity to catch up with a friend for hours. Although I initially found café sitting excruciatingly hard at first, but as study abroad challenges and successes have occurred, it is a preferred option to catch up with close friends and the new Argentinian friends I am making.
Besides a happy tummy and a space to get to know my host family and other Mendocinos, Argentinian food has given me a chance to rethink how I see my value of time. My multi-tasking, fast-paced nature in the United States is unrecognizable here. I am thankful for the opportunity to sit back, drink some tea, and experience my life here up close.