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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Argentina

Historic Diet

Argentine Food - BBQ

When the earliest people arrived to what is today Argentina they found a large number of plants and animals on the lands that were used for food. However these foods differed across the huge region, especially considering the changing landscape with the mountains and the far stretches to the south.

The plants in the south and in the mountainous areas tend to be small berries and fruits, likely including cherries, strawberries, bilberries, elder berries, and others. Also in the mountains were hardier crops like potatoes and quinoa (a grain), both of which are native to the Andes Mountains. Pine trees were also common, making pine nuts another part of the diet. In the lower northern lands other plants were found including the pineapple, which is indigenous to the region where Argentina meets Uruguay.

In addition to the plants found for food, the early people also ate meat and seafood. Along the coast salmon, crabs, squid, and other animals were commonly consumed, while inland the freshwater fish species were more limited, although trout are common in many rivers. Some mammals also made up a part of the historic diet, but in much smaller numbers.

Culinary Influences

Argentine Food - Pastry

When the first people arrived to what is today Argentina they came from the north. At about this same time new foods arrived to the region, some of which arrived through winds and animals, while others arrived with these settlers. This spread of foods included tomatoes, peppers, corn (maize), peanuts, melons, squash, cassava, papayas, pineapples, chocolate, vanilla, avocado, and other foods. Today all of these foods can be found in most, if not all South American countries, including the parts of Argentina where these foods can be grown.

These early settlers used both the foods native to the region as well as those that made their way to Argentina as an important part of their diets. From this point, into the 1400s, little changed in the diet other than in food combinations and cooking techniques.

Many people in Patagonia and the northeastern part of Argentina still use traditional cooking methods and many of their dishes are heavily reliant on the above mentioned foods. Among the many cooking techniques by the indigenous people of Argentina, one of the still used techniques is to place hot rocks and the food (generally a meat) into the ground essentially pressure cooking the food.

As Europeans began arriving in the region of Argentina, they also brought with them their foods, cooking techniques, and dishes. Some of these were brought over without any changes, but most of these ingredients weren't present in the region so local substitutes were found. Today the foods in Argentina are truly a combination of European dishes and cooking styles with South American foods and ingredients, although in recent years this has been changing.

The two greatest European influences were from Spain and Italy as this is where most immigrants to Argentina arrived from. Today Spanish influence is ever-present, including in their stews and desserts, but Italian influence is even more pronounced as pizza and pasta are very common today. However other immigrants left their mark as tea is popular from the British, Levantine foods can be found due to Middle Eastern immigrants, while German pastries and cakes are present from those immigrants.

In addition to the Europeans bringing over their foods and techniques, they also brought over entirely new plants and animals that vastly changed the culinary landscape in Argentina. The Europeans are responsible for bringing over many of the grapes the country is now well-known for as well as introducing wheat and rice. They also introduced new animals, most particularly pigs, chicken, and cattle, which led to the meat and dairy diet of the people today. Other ingredients were also introduced and are now common in Chile, including onions, cilantro, black pepper, limes, garlic, broccoli, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, olives, bananas, apples, and oranges.

More than European influence, the lifestyle in Argentina itself during the colonial days led to the growth of asado (barbeque). As many people found jobs as ranchers in these huge open spaces, grilled and smoked meats became a staple in the diet and this trend continues today as the country is well known for their grilled meats, which are served at most large gatherings.

Since the late 1800s the diet has been constantly changing, but during this time due to technological changes. Better transportation and storage techniques allow the importation (and exportation) of foreign foods, which are now easily accessible in large cities. This time has also altered cooking techniques and the eating culture as fast food has been introduced, as have already prepared frozen foods.

Ethnic foods have also grown in popularity recently, especially in large cities like Buenos Aires, which is now home to various ethnic restaurants. Despite the recent changes, most people still prefer a home cooked Argentine meal or going out to a restaurant as opposed to fast food, frozen food, or ethnic foods.

When & Where to Eat

Breakfast in Argentina tends to be small and is more focused on coffee or tea than it is on food. Although numerous foods can be served for breakfast, many people just have a small pastry or bread with their drink.

Breakfast is small in part because lunch is not. Throughout most of Argentina lunch is the largest meal of the day and many people close shops to eat at home from about noon to about 2:00 or 3:00 pm. This meal generally consists of multiple courses and usually includes soup, meats, rice, potatoes, pasta, vegetables, dessert, and coffee or tea. In some areas lunch is still followed with a siesta or nap. In the large cities the long lunch at home is almost completely absent as people tend to work longer hours so lunch is taken at work, from a street vendor, or from restaurants or cafes. For the people in the cities lunch is generally a bit smaller as dinner has taken the role as the largest meal of the day.

One place many people in the cities have lunch are restaurants or rotiserias, both of which tend to offer small foods served quickly called minutas. These minutas are most common for lunch or snacks, but are also popular for dinner in large cities like Buenos Aires. Another popular place for city-goers to have lunch or a snack are in cafes, which tend to offer coffee, tea, and small plate foods, usually called picada.

Dinner in most of the country tends to be small and takes place very late, generally beginning at 9:00 or 10:00 pm. Most people tend to have dinner in the home with family, but as restaurants are growing in popularity more people seem to be dining out each year. In the cities, like Buenos Aires, where lunches tend to be smaller, dinners take on the traditional lunch foods mentioned above. Also in the cities dinners are more commonly eaten in restaurants, especially on weekends; despite this dinner is usually served in home at about 9:00 or 10:00 pm.

Staple Foods

Beef: perhaps not a true staple, but beef and other grilled meats are so common they are the centerpiece of many meals
Bread: breads are served with most meals or are a part of meals, like sandwiches
Pasta: also known as "pastas" are found in many dishes due to the heavy Italian influence
Pastries: pastries are commonly served for snacks, breakfast, or dessert as they can be seen everywhere

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Asado: the "national dish" is simply a cooking technique; barbequing meats and vegetable of all kinds is very popular
Dulce de leche: this is not a dish so much as a sweet paste used on many desserts and pastries
Empanada: these are dough pockets filled with chicken or beef along with onions, eggs, or other items.

Dining Etiquette

The Argentines tend to dress nicely, especially over meals with new friends or business acquaintances so if you get invited to dine with the locals be sure to dress nicely and if at a business meeting a jacket and tie are needed for guys and girls should wear a blouse or skirt. If you are lucky enough to be invited into a local's home for a meal this is a great sign of affection.

No matter where you're eating, be sure to arrive about 30-45 minutes late as this is when the Argentines tend to arrive. If you get there before everyone else, take a moment to use the bathroom if needed as getting up during a meal is considered rude and meals in Argentina can last quite a long time.

Before sitting down let your host show you a seat as they may have a particular seating chart; be aware that men and women also tend to sit on opposite sides of the table so if they insist you seat yourself, try to follow this rule, but reserve the heads of the table for the host and hostess. Once you settle in try to avoid any sensitive subjects like politics or religion; also avoid business topics, even if you're at a business meeting as this is typically a time to get to know each other, but business may be brought up by your host after the meal.

The table setting is similar to that of North America or Europe so most people are familiar with it, but there are a couple things to remember when eating. First, always keep your hands above the table so they are in sight, preferably by resting your wrists on the edge of the table. Next, don't begin eating or drinking until your host or hostess invites you to do so. This is usually initiated by the words "buen provecho" to begin eating and a toast, perhaps as simple as "salud" before drinking. Also try to avoid pouring wine as there are a number of rules on how wine should be poured; the two most important being to never pour with your left hand and to always pour the bottle forward into the glass.

When the food arrives and you start eating, be sure to eat in the continental style, meaning the knife stays in the right hand and the fork remains in the left. You should use your utensils to eat everything except bread, which will often sit on the table itself or on your main plate as bread plates are uncommon. Also try to avoid cutting lettuce in a salad and if you pass food it should always go left.

As you finish your meal leave a bit on your plate, which is a sign you were given more than enough. Also put your fork and knife together, prongs down and handles facing right.

When you are finished eating you may be offered dessert, coffee, tea, brandy, or another beverage, which is polite to accept. After this is done and the conversation has ceased summon the waiter or waitress over (if you invited others out to the restaurant) by making eye contact and saying "mozo" (you will not get a bill until you ask for it). The inviter is expected to pay for everyone, but if you are not the host offer to help pay none-the-less. If you do pay, leave a tip of about 10%, which is standard for good service at a sit down restaurant. If you dined in the home of a local, thank them for the meal and conversation then call them the next day to again thank them for their hospitality.

Celebrations & Events

There are numerous celebrations and events that bring the best of Argentina's food to the table. This includes religious and secular holidays as well as the weekly dinner every Sunday that brings families together for pasta or another traditional dish.

The most famous of these large annual celebrations is Carnaval, which takes place on the Tuesday prior to the beginning of Lent, a date that varies every year, but generally falls in late February or early March. This festival involves an over-consumption of alcohol and more food than one should ever eat, including many local favorites.

A couple events focused more on the drinks are Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia and Festival Nacional de la Cerveza, which are the national wine and beer fest, respectively. The wine fest takes place in Argentina's most famous wine city, Mendoza during the harvest, which takes place in February or March. The beer festival is somewhat of a nod toward the many Argentines with German heritage and takes place every October.

Additional holidays are also celebrated, but in very different ways from region to region and from family to family. Christmas and other religious holidays are often celebrated with family, while New Year's and other secular holidays tend to be more commonly celebrated in public with both family and friends.


Argentine Food - Calabash

Although Argentina boasts all the world's best known beverages like tea, coffee, soft drinks, and milk, they also have a few unique drinks. The most popular of these is mate, which is made from the yerba mate plant in much the same way tea is made. Drinking this indigenous beverage is also a ritual as it must be drank from a certain container (usually a gourd) and using a certain straw.

Argentina is also well known for their wines, a growing industry that has gained an excellent reputation in recent years. Among the many varietals, Malbec is perhaps the one the country is most closely associated with. Despite this large industry, and the people's love of wine, beer and other alcoholic drinks are gaining popularity. Beer is very popular, including the local beers: "Quilmes," "San Carlos," "Rio Segundo," and "Cordoba" among others. Hard liquors are also available including the local aguardiente or cana quemada, which is made from sugar cane.

Generally speaking, the tap water is safe to drink in the large cities of Argentina, but not safe in more rural regions. Either way, check with locals before consuming the water and if you do decide to drink the water, remember that many people may have troubles adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to.

This page was last updated: April, 2013