“Until I tried Peruvian, I didn’t realize how bad Argentine food was,” said our friend (a Buenos Aires native). This is not the first time we’ve heard a Porteño badmouth his national cuisine. The common complaint is that Argentine food is 90% meat, 10% bland vegetable, which is more or less true. ‘Spice’ is covered by a mild pesto-like garnish known as chimichurri. In fairness, there is a lot that can be achieved with those basics but sometimes one feels like a change.
Four of us were in La Conga, a casual family restaurant in Balvanera, a populous working-class district with a thriving Jewish community. It was Saturday afternoon and the place was clearly a popular place to be. There was a line of about 20 people outside and inside it was completely packed—crowded with large families enjoying a voluble weekend outing. A window along one wall showed cooks working away in a huge kitchen to deliver dishes piled high with food. These were then whisked away by waiters who slipped between tables like small fish darting about a coral reef.
Although I was unfamiliar with Peruvian food, the smells were appetizing. I opened the menu with the eagerness of someone who’d skipped breakfast and was embarking on a culinary adventure. In the end, though, we left the ordering up to our friends, who were two old hands.
Ceviche, the classic Peruvian dish, was the most impressive and most popular order: a mountain of marinated seafood topped off with a clam. Tender and chewy, it is served with red onion and toasted maize— a form of corn native to Mesoamerica and Peru that has huge white, sweet kernels.
After the marination of ceviche, the cook is left with a tasty concoction of lime juice, chilli, onion, fish juices and salt and pepper. This is known as leche de tigre (Tiger’s Milk) and traditionally drunk from a little glass after the meal. In folk tradition it’s considered an aphrodisiac. Judging from the menu, it can also be served as a soup.
Probably my favorite dish was Papa a la Huancaína (Huancayo potatoes). This consists of boiled potatoes (the ‘papas’) and hard-boiled eggs in a creamy sauce of a paste made of yellow peppers (aji amarillo), evaporated milk and queso fresco (fresh white cheese). It had a garnish of lettuce and an olive. Although there are 3,800 varieties of potato grown in Peru, the usual choice for this dish is the buttery papa Amarillo (yellow potato), which is preferred to make mashed potatoes and a dish known as causa limeña.
Just when our stomachs were on the point of bursting, the waiter brought the tallarín con pollo—a roast chicken on a nest of green pasta. Since we came to Buenos Aires after living in Turin, I was interested that Peru had adopted the Piedmontese word tajarin as a generic term for pasta. It seems to have been brought to Peru by immigrants from Liguria, province of sea-goers, and the sauce was a slightly less garlicky version of Genoese pesto—you can see a recipe here. In Peru the custom is to dump the main meal right on top of the pasta, in this case roast chicken but otherwise a steak, an egg etc., sometimes even French fries. It amuses me to think of a Genoese gourmand observing this, as Italians usually keep the pasta dish separate from the meat course.
I was so full that I didn’t even try the other dish, which seemed to be braised beef, yuca and lima beans (though I couldn’t be 100% sure about that). Lima beans have long been an key source of protein for south Americans, who didn’t eat a lot of meat. The beans probably originated in Guatemala and were then brought along ancient Indian trade routes as far afield as Mexico and Peru. Europeans first twigged to them in Lima (hence the name) and shipped them off to Europe in the sixteenth century, possibly at the same time as potatoes made their Old-World debut.
Meanwhile, there were two different kinds of sauce designed to compliment all the dishes. One was aji verdi (green chilli sauce), the other a white concoction that I think might have been Peruvian mayonnaise (basically mayonnaise made with lime juice) . Our friend waxed lyrical on these condiments, urging us to combine them in the proportions to reach the ‘ecstasy point’.
The whole experience was not only a nice introduction to Peruvian cuisine but also a chance to learn some Buenos Aires lore from our learned friends, who were regaling us with tales of Argentine politics.
I especially enjoyed the antics of President Carlos Menem. Not only did he happily accept the gift of a $100,000 Ferrari Testarosssa from Italian businessmen, he drove it from Pinamar to Buenos Aires in two hours flat (according to Google maps, it’s a journey that usually takes four hours and 19 minutes). He became the first Argentine president to divorce his wife whilst in office and adopted a party lifestyle that puts Berlusconi to shame, even installing a mini zoo and buffoon in the presidential residence. He allowed his son Carlos fly a helicopter within city limits, ordinarily a no-fly zone, and this may have led to Carlos’ death-by-helicopter-crash. In fact, a lot of Argentines believe he is cursed and even avoid saying his name out loud for fear of summoning bad luck.