BUENOS AIRES - Steak sushi (a sushi roll filled with cooked steak), served with grape leaves, quinoa and Malbec barbecue sauce.
From the very first pages, the new authority on Argentine cuisine, entitled New Argentine Cooking, is provocative, to say the least.
In this book of 224 recipes from 31 Argentine chefs, mountain empanadas made with filo dough, trout ceviche and tomato risotto co-exist with more standard stews, potato cakes and grilled tip roasts.
“Today we can talk about a new cuisine -- it’s a new model that has to be strengthened. Above all we have to break out of our paradigms. I was able to jump outside of the box that most Argentine chefs are working in,” explains Pietro Sorba, a food critic and the author of the new book of recipes.
But what’s new here? Sorba says that for the first time there is a new generation of cooks who study in Argentina and then go perfect their skills outside of the country. These new chefs return to their homeland and apply everything they have learned overseas to the local products found in Argentina. The final result includes things like basil tempura, caper gel, olive air or yogurt foam, dishes that could well have been created by Spanish chef Ferran Adria, a leader in molecular cooking, in which nothing is what it appears to be.
This new culinary guide does not feature grilling secrets or tips for making pizza, but you will find tamales, liver sandwiches and grandma’s pudding elevated to the level of haute cuisine. One of Sorba’s best calls in this new recipe book was to rescue these traditional dishes, prepared with quasi-surgical precision. And as a counter-attack on those who criticize his decision to include fusion recipes, he included a truly national assortment of cooks: in addition to chefs from Buenos Aires there are many other chefs from other cities around the country.
Guillermo Calabrese, head of the Gato Dumas culinary school, is more cautious. “We are toeing a thin line. If I make something classic, I’m accused of being rustic, but if I change the ingredients too much, it totally changes the recipe. You end up with a bife de chorizo (a traditional Argentine cut of beef) with sesame seeds and wasabi chimichurri (sauce used for grilled meat). It’s a tough balance. Sometimes you are trying to make an impact with the way the food is presented but in reality you are just updating a traditional recipe,” Calabrese said.
Conquistadors and immigration waves
Argentine cuisine doesn’t have much of a history, because in contrast to other Latin American countries, the conquistadors erased everything they found, including the cuisine, which couldn’t compete with the Spanish influences. The land was filled with cows and barbecue became the national food. As the centuries passed, there were successive waves of immigration and pizza and pasta became a permanent fixture on the Argentine menu.
Sorba says that all of those things explain why Argentine cuisine today is not well known compared with the powerful gastronomic cultures in Peru and Mexico. “It’s not only the professional cooks, it’s the regular people who are more open to trying new things, to eating less red meat and more fish, to incorporating more vegetables,” the book’s author says.
But cuisine is more than just a product of history; it is also affected by the economic crisis. When the foie gras, Russian caviar and Spanish saffron were gone, cooks had no choice but to see what else was left in the cupboard. That’s when they discovered that the salt from Chubut, a province in southern Argentina, or the new potatoes from the north could be just as refined as the foreign products.
“It was a shock, but we realized that the real star was raw materials, and we have really good products here,” says Juan Pedro Rastellino, a member of a collective of Argentine chefs under 40 called Gastronomía Joven Argentina, who all spend hours and hours in the kitchen every day -- in contrast to some chefs who spend most of their time in a TV studio. These chefs feel that they are the flag bearers for this new national cuisine.
“We share a new concept of cuisine, but everyone makes it his or her own,” says Martin Baquero, another young Argentine chef, who supports the idea that chefs should search out the best raw materials. “We make a huge effort to find good products but we think that the most important thing to cultivate is the clients, because our cuisine can only evolve if we have a culture of gastronomy,” Baquero explained.
So the new Argentine cuisine features new techniques and unique combinations but follows the international trends towards high-quality, local ingredients combined with a few carefully selected exotic flavors. It might not be exactly comfort food for Argentines, but the country’s culinary elite is not making any apologies.