Studying abroad in Argentina is a great way to expand your cultural, linguistic, and culinary horizons. Foods and drinks in Argentina reflect the country’s complex history of migration, resulting in a heady mix of Italian, Spanish and indigenous influences, with the occasional German or Welsh flourish thrown into the mix in the southern parts of the country.
During the five months I spent living and studying abroad in Buenos Aires - with a couple of trips around the country thrown in for good measure -- I did my best to try all the delicious things that the country has to offer, discovering some wonderful new foods and drinks along the way.
It turns out that there is much more to Argentinian cuisine than wine and steaks -- though there’s certainly no shortage of that either --- so I’ve prepared a short list of must-try foods and drinks that you can look forward to while studying in Argentina.
Dulce de Leche
Let me kick off the list with my greatest Argentine obsession while studying abroad: dulce de leche.
Dulce de leche is made by caramelizing sweetened milk and is heavenly in its simplicity. It is the key ingredient in many Argentine sweets, but in my humble opinion, it’s at its best when eaten directly from the jar or smeared onto some oven-fresh medialunas. Argentinians eat on average three kilograms of the stuff per year and frankly, I’m surprised it’s not more.
Every half-decent supermarket will offer a wide array of dulce de leche brands and no two are quite alike – a great excuse to try them all out and chalk it up to field research!
Something to keep in mind when embarking on your dulce de leche adventure: dulce de leche repostero has a thicker consistency and is only used for baking -- for example it is used in alfajores, where it is sandwiched between two cookies.
Yerba mate is the brew that fuels Argentina. People brew and drink it at home, on subways, walking down the street, on romantic dates in parks and just about everywhere else. Drinking mate with friends is also a social occasion, where one drink is passed around in a circle.
The elaborate process of preparation -- including a gourd, a silver straw called bombilla, yerba mate leaves, and a combination of hot and cold water -- can take a while to master, but any Argentine you meet will be more than happy to share his or her trick to brewing the perfect mate. The yerba mate leaves have an earthy taste that can take some getting used to, but many brands also sell mate infused with honey or mint to take the edge off.
It is perfectly acceptable (even expected!) to bring your gourd and a thermos of hot water to class, and yerba mate can be a true godsend during long days of lectures while studying abroad, because it delivers its caffeine in a nice sustained energy spike without any of the coffee jitters. As a bonus, it’s full of vitamins and antioxidants to make up for your wine and dulce de leche habit.
Unless you’re deep in the Patagonian wilderness there’s a good chance you’ll never be more than a block away from empanadas while studying abroad in Argentina.
These small savoury pastries make for a quick and budget-friendly snack between classes, but their culinary worth is not to be underestimated. In Buenos Aires many small shops specializing in oven-fresh empanadas offer a variety of creative stuffings beside the classic humita (sweetcorn), carne (meat) and verduras (vegetables) options and once you’re out of the capital all bets are off as each region does its best to outdo its neighbours.
Jujuy and Salta to the northwest take their empanada game to the next level with local variations including egg and potato, quinoa and goat cheese or even llama meat. Heading south from there, the recipes change from region to region until you land in southern Patagonia, which specializes in lamb and seafood empanadas.
Medialunas (literally translated as “half moons”) are the slightly smaller, slightly sweeter Argentine cousins of French croissants. They will usually make their appearance for breakfast or during a coffee break, and are often combined with -- you guessed it -- dulce de leche.
There are two types of medialunas: medialunas de manteca, made with butter, are much sweeter and softer, while medialunas de grasa, made with fat, are thin and crispy. Either way, they’re delicious before a day of classes.
While chimichurri is not strictly speaking a food in its own right it is an integral ingredient of the Argentinian gourmet experience (plus it’s really fun to say).
Made with parsley, garlic, oregano, red chili pepper flakes, olive oil and a splash of vinegar, it is a sauce that can transform even the blandest dish into a feast of flavors. It is traditionally served with meat, but short of pouring it into your yerba mate it goes well with pretty much everything -- it’s excellent with vegetarian dishes, on sandwiches, in salad dressings or even with scrambled eggs.
Steaks are practically synonymous with Argentina and if you’re a meat lover I hardly need to convince you to enjoy some of that world-famous beef while studying abroad in Argentina.
Argentinians have turned meat-eating into a lifestyle, with all the confusing lingo and subtle nuances that entails, so instead of preaching to the choir let me give you some pointers.
In Argentina you have to get a bit more specific than ordering “a steak”. Pretty much all parts of the cow are up for grabs, but some of the most popular cuts are bife de lomo (tenderloin), bife de chorizo (sirloin), and vacio (flank), which is not usually served outside Argentina.
A side note on some of the more bewildering aspects of meat-related vocabulary: asado is kind of like American barbecue, in that the word refers both to a range of grilling techniques as well as to the social event surrounding it, but most Argentines would not be thrilled with you comparing their beloved asado to the lowly barbecue.
Additionally, a parrilla is both the grill used for an asado and a restaurant specializing in grilled meat; a parrillada is a plate of various meats.
Argentinian wine has a lot going for it: it is delicious, affordable, and a cornerstone of Argentinian culture. It also pairs well with many of the foods on this list, most notably steak.
Argentina is the world’s fifth-largest wine producer and makes a large variety of wines, the most popular being Malbec, which was imported from France in the 19th century. The sweet indigenous wine popular with white-wine drinkers is called Torrontés.
In a delightful counterstrike to wine snobbery, Argentines like to serve wine in tacky penguin-shaped wine pitchers called pingüinos. Why? Because there are penguins in Patagonia, and that’s as good an answer as I ever got. These days pingüinos are going out of fashion, but can still be found in many local restaurants and diners where they make for perfect, cute dinner companions.
More than half of Argentines come from Italian descendants and the influence of Italian culture is most strongly felt in Buenos Aires, where the first documented pizza was baked in 1882 by an immigrant from Naples. Since then the recipe has gone its own way and turned into a rather controversial interpretation of the Italian dish we all know and love, with a heavy-handed approach that can leave Italian purists less than thrilled.
Argentinian pizza is a delicious variation on a theme, with unexpected toppings reflecting the regional tastes, but is best appreciated with an open mind and without comparison to its Italian cousin. Forget the Italian obsession with good quality dough and simple toppings -- in Argentina, the dough is merely there to support the cheese, the more the better.
Torta pascualina is another Italian dish that was brought to Argentina by Italian migrants in the early 20th century and became a part of the Argentinian culinary repertoire. It is a pie filled with green chard and hard-boiled eggs that tastes much better than it looks (and sounds). The dish is remarkably wholesome for a country with such deep love of sugar, meat, and cheese, and is a rare treat for visiting vegetarians.
Some of my favourite memories of studying abroad in Argentina revolve around food: long-winded dinners with friends fuelled by many, many pingüinos of Malbec; a quiet hour between classes spent in a café with a plate of medialunas and a book by Borges; more and less successful attempts at asado in the Patagonian wilderness; the ritual of brewing yerba mate; the thrill of discovering yet another delicious dulce de leche brand (I’ve never been more devoted to data collection than during my search for the ultimate cup of dulce de leche).
I hope this article inspires you to try out as many different Argentine foods and drinks as you can get your hands on and make some wonderful memories of your own in the process.