Doing the Vegan Tango
ARGENTINA IS FAMOUS FOR THE TANGO AND dulce de leche, but too often, people think of the country and conjure images of plates mounded with asado (beef ). That’s mostly because this second largest country in South America tops the world in beef consumption. According to The Washington Post in 2006, Argentina’s 40 million people consumed approximately 50 percent more beef than the average American, with 140 pounds per person a year. This shouldn’t be surprising. Outside of the capitol of Buenos Aires, large cattle ranches sprawl across grasslands called the Pampas. No wonder many visitors to the country can’t see beyond asado on the menu.Today’s Argentine cooking has ties to pre-Columbian food traditions, but it also boasts strong connections to Spain, Portugal, Italy, and many other European countries. With so many culinary traditions stirred into the pot, the essentials of Argentina’s cuisine aren’t really unique and distinct like French or Italian cuisines, but there are typical menu items, such as tamales, empanadas, and flan. Even these options rely on animal products, so how can a vegan enjoy Argentine dishes?
BEYOND THE BEEF
First, look beyond the asado. Keep in mind that Argentina’s climate and topography are perfect for a variety of crops. The country produces enough bananas, barley, beans, corn, lemons, potatoes, rice, soy, sugar cane, and wheat to export them. In the northeastern part of Argentina, citrus harvests tip the scales at more han 2 million tons a year, and luscious tropical fruits like pineapple from rainforests are treasured offerings. In the grain belt, farmers grow commodity crops of corn, rice, and wheat on large-scale farms. Northwest Argentina, which is bordered by the Andes Mountains, has food traditions tied to the old Inca Empire and Pre- Columbian foods. Here, potatoes, quinoa, and amaranth grains provide daily fare, and tomatoes, rather than citrus, flavor marinades. To the south in the Patagonia region, the climate and topography of rolling hills, plateaus, and low plains offer near perfect growing conditions for row-crop vegetables, apples, and pears.Second, check out a cookbook from Argentina, and you’ll discover vegetable-filled recipes that include hominy, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and other produce grown in the United States. Thick porridge-like meat- less soups made with hominy and vegetables called locro guascho are common. And though Argentina’s culture doesn’t emphasize vegetables, meatless hors d’oeuvres and sauces made with seasonal produce frequently appear on menus. That doesn’t mean you can count on strict vegetarian versions of dishes in restaurants. (Just about any dish could contain animal products such as butter, cream, or lard.) However, the melting- pot aspect of this cuisine means that substitutions can be incorporated, much like they are in the United States.
For example, savory dishes such as quinoa chowders have ties to ancient Andean traditions, and quinoa offers protein and carbohydrates. Empanadas (savory-filled, portable pastries) hail from Spain and Portugal and can easily accommodate smoked tofu, beans, or additional vegetables. Tamales made with fresh corn migrated south from Mexico, where the Aztecs enjoyed them long before Spanish conquis- tadors arrived. Then, European settlers contributed ingredients like nuts, raisins, and olives to the existing cuisine. Tofu, tempeh, or even beans are perfect in tamales and savory casseroles.
Sweets have the same melting-pot background as Argentina’s other foods. Puff pastries harbor a French connection, while many cakes and pastries claim German ties. The popular quince paste membrillo, as well as rice pudding, came from the Spaniards and Portuguese.
Before the Spaniards arrived, fruit was the ‘dessert’ or sweet of choice because indigenous cul- tures didn’t have access to sugar. The introduction of sugar planta- tions in northern Argentina and Brazil made a huge impact on Argentina’s sweet cuisine.
Today, whether chocolate or fruit, modern Argentine desserts involve a good quantity of sugar. Substitute vegan sugar and soy- milk and try a spoonful of dulce de leche. Then, you’ll see just how sweet desserts in Argentina can be.