Beef, beef, beef. If you're a vegetarian, this is probably a good time to stop reading to avoid auto-implosion. Argentinians love their beef, almost as much as they love their yerba maté (a type of herb tea) and their Malbec. Parilla (pronounced par-EE-zja in Argentina) is popular in many South American countries such as Peru, Ecuador and Brazil, but in Argentina, it is almost an obsession. Parilla restaurants are everywhere, not only on every corner of the city of Buenos Aires, but in the rest of the country. Beef is a serious subject and Argentinians are justifiably proud of their beef industry. Every year, for 124 years, in Buenos Aires, La Exposición de Ganadería, Agricultura e Industria Internacional (The Exposition of Farming, Agriculture and International Industry) is held in La Rural, a convention center near Plaza Italia. This year's exhibition just wrapped up and was a two week celebration of South American farming life, including horse riding competitions, rodeos, farm equipment demonstrations, traditional dancing, food and wine sampling and, of course, livestock competitions, including a prize for the largest cow and bull. Argentinian cowboys, known as gauchos, are the original beefeaters, often eating little else (which is no doubt why maté is so important: it provides the necessary plant life and liquid to keep their digestion moving).
Gauchos preparing a traditional asado (courtesy of http://www.therealargentina.com/)
The parilla is actually the wood-fired grill on which the meat is cooked and asado is the cooking method, but most restaurants serving this fare are referred to as Parillas, Parrilladas or, occasionally, Asadores. The parilla is a mixed grill, which may include lomo (tenderloin or filet mignon), bife de chorizo (similar to a NY strip steak), falda (skirt steak), asado de tira (short ribs) and other parts of the cow that are not widely served in North American restaurants, such as the liver, kidney, mollejas (sweetbreads) and chinchulines (intestines or chitterlings). Also accompanying the meats are sausages such as spiced pork or morcilla (blood sausage) and potatoes or vegetables with the ubiquitous condiment, green or red chimichurri, a type of lightly spicy salsa. No one will ask you how you like your meat cooked; much to many non-Argentinians chagrin, it is always well-done. It is a shared meal, often cooked at home for parties or long weekend celebrations (of which there are many in Argentina). Living in an apartment building is no barrier to grilling asado, as many buildings have a central chimney and each apartment unit includes an individual BBQ pit.
In Argentina, even in a fast food court, you can get parilla: Galerias Pacifico, Buenos Aires (photo by Simone Cannon)
The home parilla is taken very seriously and represents a whole segment of culture or perhaps the art and science of choosing the best cuts of meat, the preparation of the meat and the side dishes, the building of the wood fire, the selection of the wine and, of course, the grilling of the meal itself. Most home asados are grilled using wood, a method called "con leña". This is used in restaurants also, but more commonly, the more efficient and less expensive "al carbón" or charcoal is used. The most important aspect of grilling meats the Argentinian way is "fuego lento", using a slow fire to retain the flavor and tenderness of the meat, a point of pride with many "asadores", the main grill chef. The order in which the meat is cooked is also important: sausages first, then the larger cuts of meat, then thinner items like matambre (rolled meat and vegetables with an egg in the center). The meat is served to guests as it is ready, one item at a time, rather than waiting for all the meat to finish cooking; that way, everyone can enjoy an interactive, hot, delicious meal. The parilla is not just about food, but about friendship, fun and family; in other words, the heart of Argentine society.