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

Bicycling in Buenos Aires, week 1

January 30, 2012
I bought a bicycle last Monday and rode for over an hour for 4 of the next 5 days. This is the ground I covered last week (shown relative to the whole city).

Number of rides: 5
Total time: 4.5 hours
Total distance: 70 km (44 mi)


Friday I took a break, Saturday I did the purple route. Yesterday (Sunday) I tied a cardboard box to the rear rack and went on a groceries run, to a larger store than we usually shop at, past walking distance. (I need to buy a plastic crate and secure it much more firmly to do that again.)

Today it was raining all day. Hopefully it'll be sunny again tomorrow.

Also, Steph's thinking of buying a bicycle now, too! (She was initially concerned about the traffic, but it's really no worse than Boston, and there are beautiful parks everywhere and partitioned bike lanes along many of the major roads.)

- Ben

The globalization of cooking

January 29, 2012
When I moved apartments a year and a half ago, my old roommate took her copy of Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" cookbook. Wanting a cookbook but not wanting to spend money, I borrowed my mother's New York Times cookbook from 1964. Flipping through the recipes, I was surprised how many of the recipes called for butter and cream. But beyond my observations about the un-nutritious meals, I noticed there were almost no Asian influences. Few recipes called for soy sauce, sesame oil or noodles. Typical ingredients in Mexican cooking like cilantro or chiles were also missing. I had never thought about the globalization of American cooking that has occurred over the past half-century.

Living in Argentina is a little like returning to that pre-globalized food culture. Argentine recipes are heavier on beef and flour than the creamy buttery creations of 1960s America. But they largely lack the infusion of influences from Mexico, Japan, Greece, Thailand, the Middle East, and so on, that are so common in the U.S. The variety in ethnic cuisine, at least in cities like Boston, is such the norm these days that it's barely worth remarking upon. But after living in Argentina for five months, I'm now thoroughly impressed by the existence of all the different cuisines and their incorporation into mainstream cooking.

Argentine food, basically, is boring. The steak and wine are delicious, and should you ever visit, you should eat and drink as much as you can. But it gets old after a while. And moreover, it's not very healthy. Argentines eat lots of meat and lots of carbs. Fruits and vegetables are only stocked when they're in season. And even then, vegetables like red onions are often impossible to find. Forgot about asparagus for most of the year, or edible lettuce, or cilantro. Think about the selection of foods at a U.S. supermarket. Fresh produce, fresh fish, nuts, hummus, granola, fresh herbs. Think about how essential most of those foods are to a healthy American diet and then consider this: One of the few places you can find those ingredients in Buenos Aires is Chinatown. Nowhere else.

Argentina is a very isolated country in a lot of ways. The government imposes all sorts of import restrictions so it's hard to find non-Argentine products. Its neighbors are far away (its largest borders are with the Atlantic Ocean and Chile, which is separated by the Andes Mountains). An unstable economy and currency has meant that many Argentines never had the money to travel abroad.

When I think about the ways that America interacts with the world, I think about free trade, travel, immigration, etc. I don't usually think about things as simple as food. But America's engagement with the world means that American cuisine has gotten more interesting and healthier. And many of those influences have been so absorbed into mainstream cooking that we no longer notice them. Living in a  less globalized country makes everyday activities, like shopping and cooking, a totally different experience.

- Steph

Our first trip to Barrio Chino

January 28, 2012
For American expats in Buenos Aires, the city's Chinatown is a delight filled with spices, sauces and fresh fish. Only about six square blocks, the barrio barely warrants a mention in our two guidebooks. But stay in Buenos Aires for any length of time, and it's hard not to tire of the limited variety in the Argentine diet.

When I cook from a recipe here, I don't even try to find all the ingredients listed. For example, the other day I made a lemon risotto with squash without parsley or Parmesan cheese and with the wrong kind of rice. Argentines may be fine with their meat and carbohydrate-based diet with minimal spices, but we've been badly craving vegetables and new flavors.

When we ask other expats where to find hard-to-locate foods, the most common answer is "Barrio Chino," or Chinatown (which is actually inhabited largely by Taiwanese Argentines).

So today we finally made our way to Barrio Chino to see for ourselves. We were walking down the main street, peering into windows, when what did we spy? More than a dozen containers of loose nuts, dried fruits, grains, lentils, and more! We immediately entered the store, thrilled to find a mixture of Asian foods and expat favorites. We came home with hummus, nuts, dried fruit, salmon fillets, bok choy, scallions, cilantro, black sesame seeds, noodles, sweet chili sauce, fish sauce, nutella, and rice crispies.

For dinner, we had a feast: noodle soup, honey soy salmon and cilantro-cucumber cocktails.

- Steph

Cucumber cilantro cocktails

To accompany our Chinatown feast, we experimented with two cilantro cucumber cocktails (it's rare to find fresh cilantro at normal supermarkets in the city, so we were excited to get some in Chinatown):

#1 Cilantro and cucumber with gin

2 slices of cucumber, peeled
1 tablespoon of cilantro leaves, muddled together with the cucumber
50 cc gin
Simple syrup to taste
Club soda to taste
[Added July 14] 10 cc lime juice

#2 Cilantro cucumber margarita

3 slices of cucumber, peeled
1.5 tablespoon of cilantro leaves, muddled together with the cucumber
50 cc tequila
25 cc triple sec
25 cc lime juice
25 cc Sprite
Simple syrup to taste

Keep in mind: We make our drinks to taste, and adjust the ingredients each time. The proportions aren't exact, and can be adjusted as you like.

- Steph

Photos from my ride today

January 26, 2012
Rio Plata
Not sure what this was, maybe a university, but the architecture was beautiful.

- Ben

I got a bicycle!

January 24, 2012

I've been wanting to get a bike here for the last few months - for exercise (I need to get in shape for Patagonia), for transportation, and for exploring/fun - and decided before the holidays that I would get one in January.

There are hundreds of bike stores in Buenos Aires - someone very helpfully made a map of most of them - and I compared the selection at nine stores around Palermo.

I wanted a mountain bike, because the roads and sidewalks can be very bumpy. I didn't want to spend too much money. I wanted either steel or aluminum - steel being generally more comfortable and aluminum being lighter - but discovered that the government's protection of the national steel industry prevents reasonably-priced steel bikes from being sold. Since Argentina does not manufacture bicycles (it only assembles them), that means the bikes are made of aluminum or (on the very cheap end) iron, not an ideal material for a bicycle.

All the mountain bikes here come with front suspension, which I was weary of - on a cheap bike I assumed it was just a gimmick, possibly worse than no suspension at all - but there was nothing available without it.

The two best stores were Canaglia (part of a chain) on Cordoba - the salesman there explained the options better than anyone else - and New Bikes on Scalabrini Ortiz, which had the best prices. I ended up getting a bike at New Bikes - their prices for the same models were ~300 pesos cheaper than Canaglia, and they had better low-end models. It came down to a model by Vairo (cheapest) or Raleigh, but the suspension on the Raleigh was much better, and it wasn't much more expensive, so I got the Raleigh.

I added a rear rack, which I'll add a milk crate to for grocery runs. Last night I decked the bike out with the gear I salvaged from my storage unit last month - bottle holder, lights, mirror, lock mount, pump, seat pouch with multi-tool and patch kit, cleated pedals (though I'll be taking most of that off to ride around town, to avoid theft).

This morning I went on my first ride, an hour along the bike paths that adjoin several major roads, and in loops around a park. There won't be a shortage of good rides in this city.

Our newest drink concoction

January 21, 2012
Lemon Basil cocktail

2 parts tequila
1 part premium triple sec
1.5 tablespoons of lemon juice (or half a lemon)
3 basil leaves
1 part simple syrup
Club soda

- Adapted from the Kitchn

- Steph

Technical glitch yesterday

January 17, 2012
For those subscribed to your daily email alerts, there was a technical glitch yesterday that made a bunch of old posts go out, after the one new post. Sorry about that. It's run through a third party, so we don't have control over it, but hopefully it won't happen again.

Sunday in San Telmo: art, antiques, music, tango

January 15, 2012
Today we spent the afternoon at the San Telmo art fair, open Tuesday-Sunday but reportedly best on Sundays. It centers on the corner of Independencia and Defensa in San Telmo (near the Subte), and extends for many blocks around.

It's similar to the Recoleta arts fair, but much larger, and unlike Recoleta which mostly has handicrafts, this area included several antique malls and shops, with everything from knights in armor to old telephones to porcelain.

Also adjacent to the fair were several covered markets with produce and artisan food supplies. At one stand we bought two peaches which turned out to be so delicious that we went back and bought six more, and all manner of other produce for the rest of the week. We even got fairly decent lettuce!

Captain Jack Sparrow

Tango in the park

Then we took the 64 bus back home, which took a very roundabout route, a nice tour through the city on a beautiful day.

The pancakes were for breakfast (with our newly imported maple syrup!)

Teatro Ciego: Dinner and theater in total darkness

January 14, 2012

Last night we experienced a "blind dinner show" at Teatro Ciego, The Blind Theater.

We enter the theater through a candlelit stairway, up into a dimly lit room. An usher gives the group of around ten couples an introduction, explains that the meal is placed left-to-right on the plate and to be eaten with our hands, and offers hand sanitizer. Then each couple is led by hand through a curtained doorway, into complete darkness.

Another usher introduces herself in the dark and guides us to our chairs. I'm sitting at the end of a table, Steph is around the corner to my right. We have no idea how long the table or room are. A waitress comes by and asks what we would like to drink, we can smell her perfume but can't see her, I choose red wine, she puts some glasses down. I can't feel my glass in front of my plate, so I feel to the left, find a glass, drink some wine, give it to Steph to drink some, put it back. Then the waitress comes back and puts a glass in front of me: I had been drinking from the glass of the person to my left.

The finger food on the plate is filled with mystery flavors. The juicy ball on the end of a skewer - is it an olive? A grape? A cherry tomato? In the center of the table is a bowl filled with bread, the bowl itself also made out of bread.

We can hear conversation all around, the sound bouncing off the ceiling and walls, but have no idea where anyone else is sitting.

Even though I can see nothing with my eyes open, when I close my eyes, it feels like the world is shut out. My brain associates my eyelids with perception and a few minutes in the dark doesn't change that.

When we have finished our food and drank much wine, the show starts, playing on all the senses except sight. It begins with the unmistakable aroma of coffee wafting across the room. For the next hour there is a piano, talking, shouting, singing, more scents, a wind instrument I can't identify, voices moving around us in 360 degrees. There is a morning scene with dew and we're sprinkled with water.

Adding to the disorientation is the language barrier: the Spanish I use day to day is aided by body language and a prior assumption of the topic of conversation. Listening to scenes acted out without either of these makes the dialogue mostly incomprehensible. There were scenes from a street and a cafe and maybe a train station, but what was said and going on, I haven't the faintest idea.

Occasionally I tilt or turn my head, trying to figure out where a sound is coming from, or hear it more clearly to understand the words, but my brain has never learned to build a spatial map purely from sound, so it's all a mystery.

The show ends with beautiful operatic singing, then a candle is lit and our sight returns. My assumptions of the room's shape and the location of the instruments have been quite wrong.

According to the artistic director, who is also the singer, there are several blind restaurants in the world, but none with an artistic performance. (At some, she says, the waiters cheat by wearing night-vision goggles; here the waitress - also the clarinetist - is actually blind. The rest of the actors are not.) They don't consider this place a restaurant, it's a theater that serves dinner. She speaks excellent English and tells us about her artistic vision - the show encompasses all the "elements of tango," elements of working-class life and suffering and melancholy and humor. (Children can't understand tango, she says; you have to have lived to understand it.) But I didn't really understand the show, so the vision is mostly lost on me. Regardless, the experience of losing one sense and heightening all the others, for a few hours, is exhilarating.

- Ben

Hiking in Patagonia

January 8, 2012
Update: We're back! Read about our adventure here.

We just booked tickets for our next adventure — two weeks of hiking in Patagonia!

On March 3rd, we fly down to El Calafate (happily flying was just as cheap as taking a bus for 40 hours) and spend a day at the Perito Moreno glacier.

Then we'll bus up to El Chalten and hike for four days in the Parque Nacional de Los Glacieres, home to Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torres.

Next we're off to Chile to do the W Circuit in Torres del Paine National Park.

Finally it's back to Argentina to fly home. 16 days in total.

Photos from flickr courtesy of Matito, satosphere, twiga269 and Yan Boechat

Follow our Patagonia trip here

What we brought back with us

January 6, 2012
We've now had four months in Argentina to discover what we miss about the United States. So when we went back to Boston for Christmas, we had the chance to bring back all the hard-to-find items we've been wanting. We bought some of the stuff, mostly the items that are much more expensive or not available here. Other things that we missed too much, we dug out of storage.

Just what did we fill our suitcase with?
  • Maple syrup
  • Measuring spoons
  • Chef's knife
  • Clingwrap
  • Sesame oil
  • Hiking books, rain jacket, gators, winter hat, thermal layer, tent cover
  • Face soap, body soap
  • Harddrive
  • Bike helmet, gloves, tools
  • Toy helicopter
  • New clothes
  • Chocolate
Things we wish we could have brought back:
  • Coffee ice cream
  • Lettuce
  • Green beans
  • Deli meat
  • Honey Bunches of Oats