Asado adventures: inside Argentina’s national barbecue obsession
“Tomorrow, I will be off,” disclosed my guide on a Saturday afternoon in Buenos Aires. “I have an asado with my family. Always in Argentina, this is what happens: on Sundays, we see our family for an asado.”
Asado, put simply, is the Hispanic word for “barbecue”. But, beyond that literal translation, the term also has a much deeper meaning in Argentinian culture. I was determined to find out more.
“The most important part of an asado is not actually the food,” confirms Agustina Chirio, a 32-year-old Buenos Aires porteña, as locals are known. “Instead, it’s the social aspect: sharing news, catching up, spending time with your relatives… This is very important to Argentinians.”
A typical Sunday asado lasts for hours
She explains that a typical asado lasts for hours, with numerous meaty courses – now increasingly accompanied by salads and veg – slow-cooked to release the intense flavours.
“It’s a feast,” Chirio adds. “For that reason, it works better the more people you have. In my family, there are just four of us. But in my husband’s, there can be 15 or 20…”
Do her and her spouse visit their respective families alone on Sundays? “No, we tend to visit his family first and then go to mine. Sometimes, I’m exhausted after so much eating and talking, but mostly I really enjoy it.”
Family gatherings can reach up to 20 people
As someone hailing from a family where wider meet-ups involving aunts or cousins are rare, the idea of weekly get-togethers is eye-opening. I’d probably find them intolerable at first. There is, however, something enviable about Argentina’s deep-rooted family ties, centred around the ritual of food.
Chirio confirms that gatherings happen at one member’s sufficiently capacious home. Outdoor barbecues are weather dependent, although some houses do have indoor grill rooms.
The tradition takes place across Argentina, with regional variations: in Buenos Aires, the focus is on the country’s famous beef; in Patagonia, lamb is more prominent. Porteños prefer steak to be served medium rare (or juguso, which literally means “juicy”) to the derision of rural types, who like to cook theirs for longer. “They say we eat our meat raw,” laughs Chirio.
In Buenos Aires, the focus is on the country’s famous beef
In each family, a dedicated asador is always entrusted with the cooking. Born an hour outside Buenos Aires to Irish-Argentine parents, John Rattagan had assumed that role by the age of 10. “I loved it – not just because cooking was enjoyable for me, but also because I was then excused from manual labour on the estancia (farm).”
Having relocated to London, Rattagan revisited his origins in 2004, when he pursued a long-held dream and opened a classic Argentine-style parrilla (grill) in Hackney. Despite the now-trendy East London area being far less desirable back then, Buen Ayre soon earned rave reviews and is still, to this day, thriving.
Proper grills, Rattagan tells me, adhere to a fairly strict order of service. “The first serving is always sausage, usually chorizo and often morcilla, which is like black pudding,” he explains.
There’s a fairly strict order of service. Malbec is the go-to wine
Then, more innards: delicious mollejas (sweetbreads), chinchulines (intestines) and riñones (kidneys). Afterwards, an array of other cuts – flank, rib-eye, rump – make up a staggered main course. Chimichurri is the condiment of choice, made from red pepper, garlic, parsley, vinegar and salt. Malbec is the go-to wine.
“In the last century, when Argentinian steak became world famous, the best sirloin would always be exported abroad,” Rattagan recalls. “That left cuts in Argentina which cost less and were more readily available.”
In Buenos Aires, a proper parrilla has an informal vibe and is a low-key neighbourhood joint, rather than being a pretentious restaurant. Typically, it has a photo-crammed wall and diner-like bench tables for large parties. In short, it’ll decimate your stomach, but not your wallet. “We just want to eat good meat – really good meat – and share that with our loved ones,” confirms Chirio. “That’s the essence for us.”
A proper parrilla will decimate your stomach, but not your wallet
Allie Lazar, a food writer part-based in Buenos Aires, recommends El Pobre Luis, located in Belgrano’s Barrio Chino (Chinatown): “The walls are covered in football jerseys, paying homage to Argentina’s obsession with sport”.
She also points to the railroad-themed El Ferroviario in Ciudadela, an area in Greater Buenos Aires. “You won’t find it in any guidebook,” she assures. “It’s basically a bustling meat palace, where waiters whip around balancing platters stacked with all sorts of things.”
On my trip, I tried the city’s saintliest meat temple, Don Julio, ranked at number 14 in 2022’s illustrious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. “It’s an example of a steakhouse that was once a barrio favourite, yet over the years it’s attained international fame,” says Lazar. “Now, both locals and tourists go.”
Alice recommends El Ferroviario, which you won’t find in any guidebook
Argentine families still visit restaurants for their weekly, carnivorous catch-up – whether it be due to the absence of an asador at home, a temporary aversion to dish washing, or because they have something special to celebrate. Indeed, I watched one such garrulous group as I was cramming down beautiful beef at the Four Seasons Hotel’s upmarket Nuestro Secreto restaurant.
Chirio still recommends an authentic experience over any other. “When visitors come to Argentina, they should befriend a local. In no time, they’ll be invited over for a family asado,” she advises.
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Images: courtesy of Richard Mellor & Flash Pack