Some time in our very ancient history, some hunter gathers killed a beast of some kind. Now up to this point our ancestors had been eating meat raw. Now, who knows how, maybe a piece of meat fell into a fire, maybe a couple of guys were chatting and some meat was left hanging near a fire and when they tasted the cooked flesh. They were hooked. Who knows, but it’s as good a theory as anything, and maybe true.
Since then we have been cooking meat over flame. The word barbecue, as we know it comes from the West Indies. Barabicu. Where the local population used to cook meat over a wooden grill to give the meat a great taste. It’s still cooked like this in Jamaica today.
It’s in Argentina that slow cooking meat over a charcoal or wood fire has risen to the heights we know it today. I’ve had braai’s in South Africa. They are damn good, but maybe it’s the quality of beef and the cuts in Argentina that make an asado so good.
The asador or parrillero is king in Argentina. These men who stand in front of those searing hot altars are like Priests praying to the Gods. We all pray to the God Beef. Well I do anyhows.
To make an asado is very natural to Argentineans. It’s a meal to bring the family together. We used to have our Sunday lunch which, with the piece of beef as a centre point used to bring our family together for a few hours once a week.
An asado take time, patience is a virtue for an asador. It takes an age to get the wood to be red hot. Something your average British bar-b-q’er does not have the patience for. That’s why everything is black on the outside and raw in the middle. Food poising alert at any British Bar-B-Q.
The blocks of wood are lit several hours before they are needed. This will give them time to burn, flames die down and the red hot heat to emerge, which is what you need for a long slow asado. As time progresses more logs are lit and kept to the far side to be used as and when the others loose all their molten power.
Now asados in the home differ from those in a restaurant, as at home you will eat a piece of meat, then another will be taken off the grill for you to eat, so everything is at its succulent best. In a restaurant everything will turn up at the same time, with some cuts of meat, chorizos being part cooked beforehand, and sometimes over cooked and dry.
The parrilla in restaurants is like a mixed grill, where you will get a small piece of everything. Ranging from kidneys, intestines, skirt steak, rib eye, chorizos, morcilla or even some tasty ribs. It just depends on the quality of the establishment, and the price you pay.
We were once given a tremendous amount of fat with a parrilla once. The waiter looked seriously embarrassed and angry at the asador. It was a cheap place, and the waiter paid the price, as we left no tip. I think he knew that was coming, as he had a face of resignation on him when we left.
Some of the best asados I’ve had have been had at friend’s homes though. Well they are always best. We normally spend hours chatting, eating, drinking, more eating, chatting and drinking with some more eating at the end.
Always first comes the chorizo and morcilla. Once these were polished off, which is always quickly. Then out comes the offal selection. Kidneys, liver, heart and sweetbreads. Normally you would only get one of these, it just depends upon the skill of the asador, and wether or not they like offal. Some do, some don’t.
Then if there is a veggie in the audience there will always be the provolone cheese. A disc of the best cheese ever to hit the grill. Charred and smoky. It’s a great addition to any asado, even if veggies are not present.
Then the slow process of bringing out every cut of meat. Piece by piece after one has been eaten, out pops another. My first home asado lasted 3 hours. A small affair, but Nilda, just kept bringing out cut after cut until I was the last man standing and continued to eat right up until the point of my stomach exploding. Remember that scene from Alien. That’s how I felt for several hours. Painful.
The skill of the asador is on show so time and perfection is key here. As some cuts require less or more cooking than others.
The meat in an Argentinean asado is never marinated. Only a generous application of salt just before it hits the grill is added. The grease from the meat is never allowed to hit the coals as this produces flare ups and smoke, which affects the taste of the meat. This never enters the mind of a British Bar-B-Q’er where speed is of the essence as who knows when the rains will come.
All that is ever served with an asado is some bread. A very simple mixed salad, consisting of sliced onion, sliced tomato and lettuce leaves. All drizzled with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and seasoned with salt n pepper. Also the most famous of sauces. Chimichurri. There is a lot of bad chimi out there, but it’s basically a simple sauce of chopped parsley, dried oregano, crushed garlic, salt and pepper. Whisked together with olive oil. You can also get a chilli version that I prefer on offal rather than the steaks. These sauces are a side not to be smothered on the meat as I’ve seen many a tourist do. Shameful.
To be honest the best drink to have with an asado is a full bodied red. Something with a tonne of tannins, as the meat with smooth them down to pure heaven. Beer does work also, but it bloats me and therefore I have to eat less meat. So………
People only think the food of Argentina is just red meat. There are other things to which Argentines consider to be there national dish. But for me the best thing is a really good cut of meat, cooked to succulent heaven over some red hot coals, drunk with a nice glass or three of red wine, but best of all it’s best eaten with friends.