Martina Ezcurra sprinkled coarse salt on the large flank steak in front of her, then massaged it with her hands. With a smile, she told me that even though men pretend to be the asador (master of South American barbecue), Argentinian women prepare the best meat.
Next to the seasoned steak on the marble kitchen table was a bowl filled with the chimichurri she had made earlier in the morning: a mixture of finely chopped parsley, oregano, ground chili and minced garlic. mixed with vinegar and vegetable oil. The bright green sauce looked like Italian pesto but was quite another thing. And later that day I would learn to spread it over roasted meat like a priest anointing something with holy oil.
In the courtyard of Ezcurra at her place conventillo – a kind of shared home in Buenos Aires where 19th century Italian immigrants once lived – his family and friends sat and chatted while waiting for the party to come. Deep in the open space, surrounded by lush green trees, Ezcurra’s son Joaquin tended the hot coals and meat, asking for a regular replenishment of Malbec: it takes hours to cook an asado and it is customary to never let go of the glass of the asador. dry. When Joaquin brought the first pieces of steak to the table on a wooden cutting board, everyone reached out for a serving. He prepared a plate for me, following something that looked like a ritual: first he took a piece of warm bread, then he chose a slice of meat and finally he spread a generous spoonful of chimichurri.
It is also used as the flavoring of choice for just about any type of meat dish in Argentina.
At first the chimichurri tasted refreshing and grassy, but then revealed a lingering, tangy spiciness of garlic. It was my first time trying the green sauce and I was amazed at how it harmonized with the flavors of salted and smoked beef. I complimented Joaquin and his mother, who in return told me, with a smile, that I was now part of the family, as if I had performed a rite of passage.
While chimichurri is a classic steak side dish, it is also used as the flavor of choice for just about any type of meat dish in Argentina, from choripane (grilled chorizo) with meat empanadas. During my travels around the country, the chimichurri was a constant presence. It hit me in the nose while strolling through the San Telmo Fair, an antique fair held in Buenos Aires on Sundays. It was in a jar on the counter of a choripan vendor at the entrance to Bombonera, the football stadium of Boca Juniors. It was at the tasting tables in the vineyards of the Mendoza region; at roadside restaurants in the desert highlands of Salta and Jujuy; and near a kitchen fire cordero al palo (slow roasted lamb) in the midst of the Patagonian winds. It was everywhere.
There are various legends about the birth of chimichurri and its name, the most famous claiming that it was about the 19th century Irish immigrant James (Jimmy) McCurry, who, hungry for Worcestershire sauce – a popular condiment in the UK – Uni and Ireland which is made from vinegar, molasses, garlic, anchovies and other ingredients – decided to create another tasty condiment with local ingredients. Supposedly, the sauce took its name “Jimmy McCurry”, which became “chimichurri” with the Argentine pronunciation.
Others believe that the name “chimichurri” appeared in the early 1800s during the failed British invasion of the Rio de la Plata, the estuary that separates Argentina from Uruguay, when British soldiers captives asked for condiments saying “give me the curry”, which Argentines translated as “chimichurri”. Yet another story claims that the sauce arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with Basque migrants, who, with their millennial culture of wood-fired grilling, brought tximitxurri (pronounced “cheemeechooree”), a Basque-style herb sauce that typically includes herbs, olive oil, vinegar, garlic, and Espelette pepper.
And although many Argentines proudly claim that it was their own grandmother who invented the sauce, some say its roots go back to before Christopher Columbus came to America in 1492. According to Daniel Balmaceda, Argentinian historian and author, the word “chimichurri” comes from the Quechua, an indigenous population who lived in the Andean region of northern Argentina long before the arrival of Europeans. “It was an umbrella term used to describe strong sauces to accompany and preserve different types of meat,” Balmaceda said.
Whether of Irish, English, Basque or Quechua origin, at the end of the 19th century, chimichurri was used mainly to accompany, and often to cover, the strong taste of freshly cut meat cooked on the barbecue, brought to the country by the Spaniards. immigrants.
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Donato De Santis, one of the hosts of MasterChef Celebrity Argentina, said that today, while Argentines eat around 86 kg of meat per capita per year (placing them third in the world), chimichurri is ubiquitous in every Argentine family. “It retains an intense love,” De Santis said. According to him, preparing chimichurri is a ritual, and families exchange it with pride; it is both a pretext for a conversation and a form of cultural exchange.
“Chimichurri means friendship, and in Argentina it has a meaning that does not exist elsewhere in the world,” said Eduardo Massa Alcantara, an Argentinian chef and television host. According to him, the friends meet for a beer in England and a coffee in Italy, but in Argentina, people invite each other for an asado. And they are coming together to barbecue despite the polarizing political beliefs that prevail in the country due to its nine bankruptcies since its independence from Spain in 1816 and the tensions between populist leftist and right-wing dictatorial beliefs.
Argentinian gastronomy is like Argentina, it’s polarizing
Some say the opposition is only part of Argentina’s culture, including its food. “Argentine food is like Argentina, it’s polarizing,” said Maria De Los Angeles Anglesio, a 33-year-old Argentinian foodie. “Dulce de leche (caramel) is extremely sweet, boyfriend (the tea) is very bitter, the asado is a full umami, and if you’re not used to it, the chimichurri is a strong sauce too. “
However, instead of creating the division, Chimichurri brings the Argentines together. The sauce is a national anthem for all who were born or migrated to the vast lands of Argentina. It represents a time when the country was the land of hope, which English travel writer Bruce Chatwin described in his book In Patagonia as the land of the fugitives, of those seeking a better life, of those pursuing a dream.
“There are as many kinds of chimichurri as there are people in the Republic of Argentina,” said Alcantara, who is also one of the judges of the Chimichurri Cup, a competition held every October at the food fair. by San Isidro Bocas Abiertas. Celebrity chefs, asado lovers and even children show their passion for asado by submitting their chimichurri to the competition.
Alcantara said that some people add lukewarm water to help the oil and vinegar emulsify, while others boil the oregano before mixing it with the other herbs. Some Argentines keep a pre-chilled liquid base on hand for any event. A few others resort to extreme measures such as burying bottles of chimichurri underground to age and develop the flavor of the sauce, adding an air of mysticism to the process. Many shy away from using strong-tasting oils like olive oil that overshadow the flavors of other ingredients, preferring to use lighter oils like sunflower.
Alcantara, along with other judges, blind tastes hundreds of chimichurris before crowning a winner. For him, the best chimichurri has balanced flavors and complements the taste of the meat without overpowering it.
In recent decades, the love for chimichurri has spread beyond Argentina’s borders. Argentinian restaurants have been established around the world, such as Buenos Aires in New York and Gaucho in London, and the sauce has been popularized in cookbooks, articles and recipes online and how-to videos on YouTube.
Still, most Argentines would say the best chimichurri can only be found in Argentina, especially in an asado. From Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego to Iguazu Falls, locals gather to celebrate friendship and food on a Sunday afternoon, stoking the fire, uncorking bottles of Malbec and spreading generous spoonfuls of the beloved condiment. .
Culinary roots is a BBC Travel series connecting with rare, local foods woven into a place’s heritage.
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