In the sea of empanadas, alfajores, medialunas, and dulce de leche, there is one Argentine culinary creation that stands apart from the rest: the asado. If forced to give a one-word translation, I suppose I would call it a barbeque, but that translation can’t even begin to encompass the meaning that asado holds for an Argentine. It would be like telling someone that the Superbowl is just a “football game.” Yes, on the most basic level the Superbowl is a football game, and yes, an asado is a BBQ, but that only begins to scratch the service of what both of these events entail. You wouldn’t really put your little brother’s pee-wee football game in the same category as the Superbowl, and flipping greasy burgers, barbeque chicken, and red hotdogs on the grill really has nothing to do with an asado.
Now, before I get too high-and-mighty with my “local” knowledge, I should admit that before my first experience, I too was woefully unfamiliar with this Argentine custom. Oh sure, I knew the gringo basics: that the word asado comes from one of the cuts of beef used, a fatty, succulent stretch of ribs placed to sizzle on the grill; I knew that the two Argentine superstars: beef and Malbec usually made an appearance, and I knew that it brought family and friends together for an evening of hearty eating.
All it took was an evening spent on the roof of a local’s apartment complex to show me how truly uniformed I was.
It was earlier in the week, around Monday or Tuesday, that Katie first came to me with the idea. She had met a delightful Argentine gentleman, a friend of a friend, a few weekends ago, and after telling him that she had yet to enjoy a true asado, he offered to show her and some friends how it was done. Obviously, Katie wasn’t about to rush headlong into the house of a stranger, but we both agreed an authentic asado was an opportunity too tempting to pass up. We recruited a few others from our group who were ready for an adventure, and agreed that Thursday after class we would give this thing a shot.Looking ahead, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. The only information I had to pull predictions from was third-person descriptions of an asado and years of backyard American barbeque. I knew classes got out at 4, we were going to buy ingredients at the supermarket, and enjoy some grilling and eating. My mental image was that of a few steaks on the grill, some cold drinks, Spanish practice, and a trip home by 8 or 9.
It was with this tentative plan in mind that Katie, Marrisca, Matt, Sarah, and I caught a bus from the University of Belgrano towards the section of the city called Olivos, where Katie’s new friend, Adolfo, had his apartment. We met him on the corner of a bustling Olivos street, where he greeted us all with warm hugs and excited questions. You would have thought we were his long-lost cousins, finally come to Buenos Aires to visit. We piled into his 5-passenger Volkswagen and headed towards the supermarket.
It was here that I first began to get a sense that I had underestimated Adolfo’s asado. He strode through the brightly-lit aisled with purpose, talking to us excitedly in Spanish and piling so much food into the cart you would have thought we were grilling for an army. Lettuce, spinach, carrots, pepper, potatoes, onions, 2 types of cheese, pork, liverwurst, chips, peanuts, bread, charcoal, beer, tequila, Fernet, and coke…a teetering food mountain took shape in the metal basket before being spilled out onto the checkout counter. Conscious of the lack of beef, Adolfo assured us that his cousin was going to be bringing the majority of the meat; we were just responsible for drinks and side dishes.
After splitting the cost (about $110 pesos each, or $16 US), we hefted our bags and added even more weight to Adolfo’s little car. Luckily, it brought us safely to his apartment without complaint. He ushered us, bags in tow, up to his tiny apartment on the 8th floor. With a contagious smile affixed to his face, Adolfo found us all chairs, set up his projector-screen television, encouraged us to play TV or music to our liking, and disappeared into the kitchen only a few feet away. He returned minutes later with drinks, chips, peanuts, and a tray of bread and liverwurst, pausing only long enough to give Sarah a quick lesson in dancing Cumbia. By the time the second round of Quilmes had been drained out of our glasses, Adolfo’s cousin, Pablo, came through the door, carrying shopping bags full of meat and wearing a complementary smile. Looking around the one-person apartment, I began to wonder exactly how Adolfo meant to go about preparing this gargantuan meal. I asked about the spatial restriction tentatively, not wanting to offend the host that had already done so much for us. Adolfo only laughed and explained that oh no, we weren’t eating here; we were going up.
The elevator brought us, food in tow, up to the 12th floor. We followed Adolfo up a few more flights of stairs, around a corner, through a door, and emerged in what can only be described as a rooftop dining room. There was a large table with chairs to seat about 20 people, enclosed in 4 glass walls that gave a view of the darkened city skyline. One door led out of the “dining room” into an outdoor grill area, shielded from the light drizzle by a strategically placed overhang. The other door, set into the back wall, led out onto a spacious terrace. Our group rushed out into the brisk wind, coats flapping around us as we “oohed” and “ahhed” at the view. Bringing up the rear, Adolfo pointed us towards a small staircase, which led to the true rooftop, on top of the dining room. The city was spread out like a map. The silent residential neighborhood of Olivos gave way to a sea of twinkling lights: white, yellow, red, orange, and blue, crowned by the looming silhouettes of commercial skyscrapers. To the east, we could see a stretch of darkness that, had it been light, would have shown us Río de la Plata and Uruguay. I spun the full 360 degrees, taking in the world around me. The hovering clouds reflected the city’s light back upon itself, softly illuminating the entire sky to produce a dreamy, twilight effect. It was, needless to say, beautiful.
Lost in the sights, I almost forgot the reason we were up here- almost. Realizing there was major work to be done, our group trouped back down to the dining room, where Pablo had taken on culinary responsibility. He had stoked a fire underneath the hanging grill, creating a glistening pile of coals over which sat an enormous assortment of meats and veggies. In the style of asado, the meat is slow-cooked over constant heat, which meant that we had about 2 hours to enjoy before our main dishes were ready. That didn’t mean, of course, that we weren’t going to be eating; Pablo had a string of appetizers to keep us occupied. Taking Adolfo’s advice, we sat back, poured a few “Fernet con Coca,” turned up the music, and let flow of careless conversation sweep us away. The only interruptions came from a new dish, and oh what delicious interruptions they were: Grilled red peppers covered in olive oil, chips and homemade guacamole, bubbling cheese with baguettes, and, the grandaddy of it all, a creation that can only be described as a “pork pizza.” On top of a thin, broad cut of pork sat tomato sauce, cheese, and ham, carefully grilled until it was dripping fat and practically oozing “sinful.”
About the time the first “pizza” was being placed on the table, a second wave of visitors arrived. Adolfo’s brother, Fernando, stepped through the door, leading 4 young ladies and carrying another round of drinks. Introductions were quickly made, and the newcomers sat down to add their own voices to the buzz of conversation. A mixture of Spanish, English, music, and laughter echoed off the walls, filling the room with a palpable warmth that had nothing to do with the temperature.
I lost myself in the comradery of it all, and before I knew it, Pablo came from the grill with the grand finale: sizzling platters of good, red, Argentine beef- a collection of different cuts. Thanks to the earlier parade of dishes, my stomach was already plenty full, but as I quickly learned, being full really has nothing to do with eating at an asado. The meat was juicy, succulent, and delicious, and everyone enjoyed more than their fill. Just when I thought I had seen it all, Pablo placed the blood sausage onto the table. The description of this delicacy is almost as unappetizing as the name: to put it simply, blood is boiled down until it goes from a liquid to a solid-ish goop. This “goop” is stuffed into a thick casing, creating a thick, black sausage that is grilled for long hours before being cut into small sections and served to the brave diner. Those who aren’t scared off by the process will find an absolutely unique dish that is rich, thick, and savory, perfect when perched on a crunchy slice of baguette. Even my overly-full stomach couldn’t keep me from going back for seconds. I finally through in the towel, or in this case, napkin, and sat back in my chair to swap English and Spanish slang words with Fernando. Matt, Katie, and Sarah joined in the fun, and before long we were acting out typical American greetings while Fernando filmed us on his iPhone.
By the time the last drops were drained out of glasses and the swell of conversation began to subside, it was almost 1:30 in the morning. We helped Adolfo, Fernando, and Pablo gather up all of the dishes and leftovers (yes, there was almost enough food to hold another asado) and bring them back down to the apartment. Adolfo absolutely refused our offers to help with the dishes and cleanup.
“This time, I am the host. When I come to the United States, you’ll cook for me, and I’ll sit back and do nothing.”
Sounds like a deal to me.
With those plans set, we bade a fond farewell to our new friends, full of handshakes, hugs, and promises that we would see them again in the States. I can truly say that these were genuine promises, not just the type you tell to soften a goodbye. If Adolfo, Pablo, or Fernando ever make their way to New York (as they said they would), you can be sure I’ll do my best to get over there and repay them for this amazing lesson what really is an asado.