You Are What You Eat – A South American Journey

Mate, a traditional South American drink that I tasted on my travels.

This summer, I had the opportunity to stay with family and friends in South America. Looking back at the photos, it’s striking how many of them are centred on a table laden with food. I love this: not just because of the cuisine, but because of the way that I have always thought of food as being a central way of sharing our lives with others. From the Last Supper to Christmas lunch, food throughout history has marked our festivals and momentous occasions with family and friends. Food that we associate with a particular person or place reflects their likes and their dislikes, their travels and experiences, their heritage and their passions.

Fare in Buenos Aires is no exception: its food combines the Italian and Spanish heritage of the Río de la Plata region. As one might expect from Italian influences, pasta plays a big part. There is even a designated day, the 29th of each month, to eat gnocchi, a tradition called Los Ñoquis de 29, which supposedly came about so that people could eat a cheap dish towards the end of the month as pay cheques run out. Another Italian-inspired dish, as the name might suggest, is milanesa – breaded escalope, fried and served with creamy mashed potato, or puré, and salad. Then there is perhaps the most famous of all Argentina’s culinary exports – the tender steaks that justified an asado, or barbeque, in the middle of winter while I was there. And no asado is complete without choripan – slices of spicy sausage eaten in pieces of soft baguette.

Aside from the delicious flavours, one of the things I loved most was the community aspect of sharing food together. This is epitomized in mate, a drink common to South America. First, the yerba, or tea leaves, are placed in a mate gourd which is filled with hot water. Then, one person drinks through a metal bombilla straw until all the water is gone. The mate is refilled with hot water and passed on. It’s a communal drink and one that unites all ages and social classes: I’ve seen teenagers lazing in the park drinking mate; grandmothers sharing an early morning drink and catching up on the family news; footballers strolling through airport security, mate in hand, flask underarm, sipping casually. It is an embodiment of the relaxed attitude so common in Uruguay – nothing can be rushed when sipping a hot drink. It’s an early morning routine for many, and unlike our daily shot of espresso, it takes time: to reflect; to talk; to breathe.

The final destination of my journey was Peru. As well as the unusual tastes of guinea pig and alpaca milanesa, I was keen to try food that was meaningful to the place and the people I was with. Earlier in the week, I had been assisting in a local school teaching English and comparing our two cultures through our two cuisines. We told the children about roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and apple crumble, and then it was their turn to describe to us their favourite Peruvian dish. Almost unanimously the class voted on ceviche, a very popular fish in the Andean village. However, there was some division on how best it is prepared. Trout, yes. Mango, chili, lemon juice, yes. Milk? For some…

In the end I played it safe and ordered it in a restaurant on our final night, not wanting to leave without trying it. The trout is marinated in lemon and uncooked, but is salmon-pink due to the high altitude of the Andes. The sharp lemon, sweet mango and spicy chili proved to be a succulent flavour combination – definitely worth the excitement that the class had displayed. I’m not sure I spotted any milk in it though…

Back in England, in the midst of a student diet of pasta and TV dinners, I’m compiling a scrapbook of photographs and recipes and memories, knowing that whenever I cook them and whoever I share them with, I’ll be both remembering and recreating these experiences. Recipes (well, mine at least) never turn out the same way twice. And in my opinion, the creativity that this allows means that this is not such a bad thing.

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