In Buenos Aires, last Sunday, after strolling down Calle Defensa through the San Telmo weekly craft market, I stumbled upon the actual market, the Mercado de San Telmo. It takes the inside of an entire city block but the sidewalk entrances are almost hidden, so it’s easy to miss it.
I’ve been there before, but clearly not at the right time because I remembered it as a quiet place with antique stalls.
This Sunday, at 3 p.m., all the small restaurants in the middle of the building, under the original ceiling, were open and there were packed. I wasn’t hungry but I was curious, so I walked around to see what people were eating—falafels, huge slices of tortillas (thick omelettes with potatoes), meat sandwiches and, of course, empanadas, these small baked pies filled with veggies (sometimes), meat (often), cheese (always).
The biggest lineup was at El Hornero. Two people were putting the filling on the small circle of dough, expertly closing the empanadas and passing them on to a woman who was sliding them into a big oven. There were entire trays of freshly baked empanadas on display but they could barely keep up with the demand.
I joined the queue and ordered a jamón y queso (ham and cheese, the classic combination) and a vegetales (rare in Argentina, locals view veggies the same way Mark does—with suspicion).
They were really good, so good that I made the trip back to San Telmo for another two empanadas the next day.
Food in Argentina and Uruguay can be described as fairly basic. There are few ingredients in most dishes and you can probably recognize all of them—unlike in Brazil, none are particularly exotic. There’s meat, lots of it, usually beef or sausage and usually grilled. There’s ham and cheese (mozzarella). Tomatoes are used in sauces, mostly for pizza and pasta. Corn and acelgas (chard) are usually the vegetarian default option for pizza topping or empanadas.
Every time I’m in Buenos Aires, I promise myself I’ll have a slice of pizza or pasta, but I rarely do because it’s not the kind of food I crave when it’s very hot outside. I usually buy food from panaderías (bakeries), like tortillas, a slice of torta because it’s my best bet for veggies (savoury pies, like the French quiches) and empanadas.
A word of warning about pasta in Argentina—if you order pasta with one of the four popular sauces, i.e. béchamel, tomato, mix of both or Bolognese, you literally get pasta topped with said sauce, nothing else. There are also two separate prices for the pasta and the sauce.
I love the fact I don’t even have to butter my own bread—I buy sandwiches de miga, thin, crustless sandwiches for about $1 at the bakery. Typical fillings include—you guessed it—ham and cheese but also ham and eggs, ham and tomato, Roquefort and ham (good luck trying to pronounce “Roquefort” with a Spanish accent when you’re French)—carrots and eggs, chicken and bell pepper, etc.
Gone are the giant Brazilian cakes, Argentina is the land of mini pastries—medialunas, scones or sweet bread covered/filled with dulce de leche, menbrillo or cream. Ice creams, the Italian style, are also very popular.
Uruguayans also eat a lot of grilled meat, as well as pizza, pasta and empanadas. There are delicious scones de queso (cheese scones) and the national sandwich is the impressive chivito—picture steak, bacon, ham, a fried egg, cheese, lettuce, tomato, olives, pickles, peppers and mayonnaise!
There isn’t a lot of variety but on the plus side, food is usually cheap, homemade with fresh ingredients and pretty tasty… as long as you’re not a strict vegetarian or can’t digest cheese (in which case… good luck!)