Grilling up steaks in Argentina

I remember my initial experience at a parrilla restaurant years ago when I made my first trip to Argentina. About three-quarters of the meats listed on the menu were steaks. Tourist tunnel vision gave me the impression that the word parrilla was plastered on sign boards throughout each block. At any home I imagined anyone and everyone who had a parrilla grill must be grilling up steaks left and right. As time went by, I learned that was not always the case. Grilling up steaks at home on a parrilla that is, not eating them.

After all this time, I get a good chuckle out of all the wide-eyed expressions displayed before me when I tell someone I’m just going to grill up some steaks (bifes). Now, when I say grill up some steaks I mean just that. Whoever I cook for will receive one steak that was cooked on a grill along with perhaps a salad and some other side dish–of course there will be a few other steaks standing by in case anyone wants another. Anyway, I don’t know why I’m still surprised with these questionable looks. The answer to that is probably because for the better part of my life, firing up the grill to quickly cook a few steaks was as common as slapping ham and cheese between two slices of bread for a quick lunch. Also, um, not to mention that this is a country known for grilling meats. But a different country and culture nonetheless, so there really shouldn’t be anything to be surprised about. Still, I get a good chuckle out of it all but not in disrespect.

This happens to my quite often but here are the last two instances…

I live in a typical city where many have some sort of outdoor patio; unlike much of Buenos Aires. Everyone and their brother has a parrilla that ranges from a small metal rack on four legs to the old cut-in-half water heater/drum/container variety to indoor quinchos with prefab/custom grills. Therefore, almost every kiosco(quick shop) has piles of carbón(charcoal) for emergencies–like you didn’t buy enough bags when you went shopping earlier or spur of the moment asados are planned. There is one shop that I’m always running down to in order start the process of fulfilling my steak cravings. May happen twice a week. So one day I’m asked how often I prepare asados by the chap that is usually behind the counter.

Clerk: Hey, you’re always buying charcoal. You have an asado every day or what?

Me: Haha, no I’m just grilling some steaks.

Clerk: And what else?

Me: Just steaks.

Clerk: [Looks at me like I'm crazy] Steaks? Only steaks? That’s it?

Me: Yep

Clerk: No no no no no. You don’t just cook steaks on a parrilla. Steaks are for the plancha(grill pan). You are supposed to cook achuras(offal), chorizos, pollo, asado de tira, vacio, morcilla on the parrilla, not just steaks.

Then at a local carniceria(meat market) that I frequent, one of the butchers asked why I’m always ordering bife ancho(rib-eye) or bife angosto(strip steak) as huge chunks instead of in slices. Although I’ve seen some order these cuts as whole or in large pieces, most people just have the butcher slice them into bifes. I remember walking into a butcher shop one time and asking for one and half kilos of bife ancho. Before I could get another word out, he was in the middle of cutting the fifth steak at about 1 inch thickness. This happens with almost every new butcher or shop I encounter. You see, bifes are typically ordered somewhat thin for a quick fry in a pan(popular home lunch fare) so the butcher just assumes that’s what how you want them. I prefer to slice my own depending on what I will prepare, so I have to declare to the butcher how I want my cut before that thin-slicing trigger finger twitches. This is what happened:

Butcher: Why do you always order this as a whole cut.

Me: To cook on the parrilla of course.

Butcher: Really? Just the whole cut on the grill?

Me: No no, I slice it into steaks. I like to slice it myself.

Butcher: Ah, do you want anything else? Chorizo?

Me: No, that’s it.

Butcher: You’re just going to cook this?

Me: Yes

Butcher: [looks at me like I'm crazy] Que? Really? Just steaks? How do you prepare them?

Me: [Gave a bunch of recipes]

Butcher: Wow, I’ll have to try that.

Does everyone feel this way? No. Neither is the parrilla idolized in such a way that one should only fire it up when one wants a huge asado. For all I know a people in Mendoza might love to just grill up steaks too with nothing else. But, I’ve never been there. Or maybe that butcher who didn’t give me a strange look does the same. I didn’t ask him. But do remember this, to prevent an uprise of disgruntled friends and family members, it’s best that you just invite everyone over on weekends and serve up a whole variety of meats.

We all learn something new every day and that’s what makes the interaction between cultures so great.

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