Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Good food comes in small packages

September 24, 2011
Just as our home cooking was starting to get boring, we spiced up the menu with two cookbooks. One is titled Argentine Cookery, in English, and includes a history of Argentine cuisine - in a nutshell, a fusion of four indigenous regions with Spanish, Italian, and British imports - along with basic Argentine dishes like empanadas, locro (stew), and asado (barbecue). The second book is titled 200 Recetas Económicas, translated to Spanish in Barcelona from the original London edition, and includes recipes from around the world.

Both books are filled with great recipes and a few quirks. Most of the Argentine recipes, for example, call for "fat" as one of the ingredients. Genuine animal lard, not the late-20th century fakes (margarine or Crisco) that we're used to from the states. I wasn't sure where one acquires this ingredient, but sure enough, right next to the butter and margarine at the supermarket are big blocks of lard. (I haven't decided if I'll use them or be a wimp and substitute margarine; I'm also not sure how one actually cooks with lard, seeing as it comes in a solid block. Presumably one cuts off a piece and heats it.)

The challenge with the translated Spanish cookbook is that some of the ingredients aren't sold here. Or so I thought, until I went to the supermarket tonight, and discovered hidden products I missed on the dozen previous trips. We had trouble finding pesto last week; this time I found four varieties (classic, creamy, olive, and tomato). My plan for dinner tonight (from 200 Recetas) was a curry stir-fry with chicken and vegetables, and I was about to give up on finding coconut milk when I discovered it hiding in the dessert aisle. Another entire aisle was filled with pasta and tomato products. (But still no maple syrup.)

It's worth noting that this was at 9:30pm, and the supermarket was packed, the line at every register backed up ten people - everyone buying ingredients for dinner at 10pm or later. This was the local Carrefour (one of several supermarket chains), which is about the size of a large Walgreens in Boston, much smaller than a Stop 'N Shop. The key to so much variety in such a small space is small packages: milk in liters or smaller, condiments in 250cc bags, meat in packages suitable for one meal. Only the eggs come in extra grande.

Earlier today, we experienced a different kind of shopping, at a Coto hipermercado. It was like Walmart, with two floors: food on the bottom, everything from car parts to mate gourds on the top. Between the produce and meat were racks of self-serve spices and cereal, where we filled up little bags with paprika, curry, cumin, and granola, to be weighed with the produce and stamped with price stickers for checkout. Even here, most products came in small packages.

A friend in Colombia told me that in Bogota, there are two economies, for rich and poor, and visitors can save money by figuring out the cheap local outlets rather than the expensive Western supermarkets. In BsAs, however, that doesn't seem to be the case - they seem to have figured out the mass-budget-retail experience while still keeping a little verduleria on every block. (I'm probably glossing over whatever subsidies or imbalances actually exist in the market, but this is how it looks to a newcomer.)

Between the two cookbooks, there should be enough variety to keep the kitchen well-stocked, the menus interesting, and my tummy happy for the rest of the year.

Dinner tonight
- Ben

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