So far, the southeastern side of South America is not a great foodie destination. Sure, if you are into grilling this might be close to heaven, but for most other flavors, there isn’t a lot to satiate the taste buds. Much like neighboring Argentina, meals are centered on meat and starch. In a country where there are many times more cattle than people, it isn’t surprising that beef seems to be the ingredient of choice. Heavy Italian and Spanish influences also brought over pizza, gelato, and lots of pastas. Wine is here too, though that industry is smaller and the choices a bit plainer due to the climate.
Since our arrival, we’ve eaten our way through more cuts of meat than I knew existed. They are almost universally tasty, and I’ve discovered that I really do like chorizo. Cooking on the parrilla (here it is pronounced ‘paireeSHa’ rather than ‘paireeYa’ – Rioplatense-accented Spanish is only mildly confusing for us) is an incredibly common way to prepare everything that once had legs or fins. A slatted metal grate off to the side of the fire ensures the meat cooks without burning to a crisp. Fancy restaurants and people tending open grills on the street all give equal respect to the deliciousness that ensues from this way of cooking. Some days it was hard to walk around without hunger pains because grills were going streetside, wafting the smells between the buildings.
We had birthdays this month, which gave us an excuse to head to Mercado del Puerto for a mixed parrilla for two. We wanted to sample a variety platter, and Cabana Veronica obliged. The building is home to at least a dozen parrilla restaurants, and the entire place smells wonderful. Open flames rise from grills all around and it is clearly a place where tourists and locals alike come to enjoy an afternoon with friends and family over food. The pile of tasty grilled beef and chicken arrived at our table after twenty minutes or so. We were also presented with a large bowl of salad – clearly it is like veggies served at steak restaurants – not really expected to be eaten. Quarters of chicken, two or three cuts of beef, chorizo, morcilla salado were all delicious. The only confusion for us was how to eat the sweetbreads. We tried one but clearly there is an aspect to them we didn’t understand; there was enough other meats to keep us occupied anyway, so we didn’t worry too much about it. Everything was grilled to perfection, and we left happy.
My favorite discovery during this stay was morcilla salado – salty blood sausage. I’d never have guessed that I would find it tasty when we started into the parrilla mixta. Cooking it at home only made me more fond of it; it can go on toast with breakfast or with rice for dinner. It is salty with a smooth texture, which is why it can be a spread as well. Uruguay is also has a second popular kind of blood sausage – morcilla dulce – a sweetened version. Stuffed with grapes, orange peels, peanuts, almonds, membrillos (which are a bit like jello), it is not your average meat-in-a-tube. We baked some and it tasted like a mix between mulled wine and a gingerbread house. I don’t think I’ll be craving that one as often as the salty version, but it would fit in as a Christmas food.
Milanesas are another favorite local way to eat meat. Despite the hype, we discovered it is basically the same thing as chicken-fried steak. We favored the chicken over the steak version, but they clearly use better cuts of meat than school lunches from our childhood and the breading has a mix of mild spices inside. Another way to get rid of the ‘lesser’ cuts of meat is to bury them in a chivito sandwich – between cheese, tomato, lettuce, eggs, and possibly bacon. Locals claim these sandwiches are a huge mass of calories that will leave you stuffed. Either we went to a restaurant that served a light version or the huge portions we grew up around have warped our understanding of appropriate meal size. We each devoured one and the full serving of fries and could have eaten more (not that it would have been good for us). And if hand-held, travel-ready packets of food are called for, there are empanadas everywhere. We had Venezuelan style made with carne picada and carne machada in maize dough, but also more traditional Uruguayan ones with flour-based wraps. Stuffed bread never gets old for me!
To go with all this meat, we arrived just in time to explore the fall harvest. Squashes, eggplants, and pumpkins feature prominently in veggie dishes. Once all the difficult slicing and chopping is out of the way, they are great fried or baked. Kevin had even gotten good at stuffing them – baking a half in the oven and then filling it with chorizos or ground beef.
Like elsewhere in South America, there still isn’t much of a choice for yummy snacks or desserts. Prices for chips are much higher than in the US – think $3-4 dollars for a small 100 gram bag of chips. As a result, popcorn has been the cure for my crunch fix. The only chipish items I’ve found that are made locally are crunchy puffs, but they always taste stale and relatively flavorless.
Since we were in Montevideo during the Easter season, we did get to enjoy the traditional decorated chocolate eggs. Ours was a mid-sized version, but some are larger than footballs and feature whole scenes of butterflies or swans. These are clearly meant to be the centerpiece for table on Easter. Other desserts are often fruit-, cookie-, or cake-based. Just like in Argentina, alfajors and dulce de leche are everywhere. I am always left hungry for more chocolate though. Expensive imitation Nutella will have to do for now…
Mate is the national drink; it gives everyone a reason to go to the beach, a chance to relax with friends, and take a break in the afternoon. Every grocery store seems to spend more shelf space on mate than on anything else. All over town, we would see people carrying the hollowed-out gourd in the crook of one arm and a thermos of hot water on the other. There is a whole market for custom-made leather carriers and the special bombilla straws used to drink it. It is interesting in that it is strictly a do-it-yourself drink – no restaurant will put it on a menu, and the most you can ever hope to find in a market is the dried leaves or a vendor selling extra hot water. A large part of the mate experience is preparing it yourself, to just your specifications. The water must be brought to an almost-boil, the leaves added to the cup and shaken just so, sugar or no, the whole mix has to be kept still while allowed to steep, then the rest of the water is added. One batch of leaves can be refilled a dozen times, so it becomes a communal way to spend part of an afternoon. It is slightly bitter, and despite the filtering straw, I always end up with bits of the leaves in my teeth. Much better sugared down!
Uruguay does produce a reasonable amount of local wine, growing it along the coast or on the opposite side of the country. The climate isn’t ideal – it is a little too humid and rainy. Tannat grapes favor these conditions but produce a plain wine. Other grapes like syrah and cabernet sauvignon are grown as well, but also taste fairly one-toned. The wines we favor here are aged in oak, adding some body and making a richer-tasting drink. Our favorites were Tannat Roble made by Traversa and a Marselan made by Bodega J. Chiappella. Thankfully wine is relatively cheap, so we don’t necessarily feel cheated out of more varied flavors.
Of course, there is beer as well – perfect for beach drinking and the hot summers. But even mass-produced brands like Patricia, Pilsen, and Zillertal seemed pricey and tend toward mass-market watery taste. (Some of that payment sadness is us being ruined by incredibly cheap, delicious beer in Poland last year – they set a high bar and woe to all the countries that have come after.) One bright spot was a small handful of craft brews. A trigo beer called Barbara made by Cabesas Bier was my favrite un Uruguay. Kevin also enjoyed finding the first pumpkin/fall spice beer he’d seen that was made outside the US, also by Cabesas – clearly they have hit their brewing stride.
We didn’t come to Uruguay for the food, and that is probably a good thing. I did enjoy the chance to chow down on red meat before heading to other places where it is more expensive. And it was good to try to local wines and mate. But overall, the cuisine didn’t stand out to me (except for morcillas!). I am so looking forward to chocolate and peanut butter again…..