Asado is more than just a barbecue in Argentina. It is a social and cultural event that brings together friends and family around a fire, where meat is cooked slowly and expertly over coals, often from a hard-wood fire. Asado is also a way of honoring the legacy of the gauchos, the nomadic horsemen and cattle herders who roamed the pampas of Argentina in the 19th century.
Asado, it's practically in our national DNA. Well, maybe not literally, but it's been embedded in our culture since the days of the first colonies. It's a result of some rather explainable yet undeniably peculiar global phenomena with Argentine Asados in many restaurants across the US and Europe.
Because we've got cows and plenty of open fields and because it’s delicious.
It's that simple.
The word asado means roasted in Spanish, and it refers to both the meal and the gathering. The technique of cooking meat over an open fire was introduced by the Spanish colonizers who arrived in Argentina in the 16th century. They brought cattle from Europe, which adapted well to the fertile and vast plains of the Pampas region.
Back in 1590, the Spaniards brought 500 cows to the shores of the Rio de la Plata. This humble herd, along with some surviving cattle from previous expeditions (left to fend for themselves and run wild), found a chance to thrive in the lush pastures of the humid pampas. In this fertile ecosystem, the cow had no greater predator than humans themselves, so they multiplied like... well, cows.
The history of Argentine asado traces its roots to the gauchos, the legendary cowboys of the Pampas region. In the early 18th century, these skilled cattle herders developed a unique method of cooking meat over open flames, giving birth to the tradition we know today. They seasoned the meat with little more than salt and fire, relying on simplicity to highlight the natural flavors of the beef, which was, and still is, of exceptional quality in Argentina.
The gauchos became legendary figures in Argentine history and culture, similar to the cowboys in North America. They developed a strong sense of identity and pride in their lifestyle, which was influenced by their Spanish, native, and African roots. They also created a rich folklore of music, poetry, and dance, such as the tango. The Asado was an integral part of their culture, as it was a way to share food, stories, and camaraderie with their fellow gauchos.
They used what were readily available resources: firewood and meat. Their seasoning was minimal, primarily salt, and perhaps a sprinkle of chimichurri, allowing the natural flavors of the meat to shine. This simplicity became the hallmark of Argentine asado.
The wood they used was quebracho, a hard and dense tree that produces long-lasting coals. They also used their lassos as makeshift grills, hanging the meat over the fire. This was how the asado was born, as a practical and delicious way for the gauchos to cook their meals in the open air.
As Argentina became more urbanized and industrialized in the 19th and 20th centuries, the asado tradition was adapted to the changing times. The cattle industry boomed, making beef a staple of Argentine cuisine and economy. The asado became a popular way to celebrate national holidays, such as Independence Day and May Revolution Day, as well as family occasions, such as birthdays and weddings. The Asado also became more diverse, incorporating different types of meat, such as pork, chicken, chorizo, and morcilla (blood sausage), as well as vegetables and cheese.
The asador also became more sophisticated, using different cuts of beef, such as ribeye, sirloin, and flank steak, and different methods of grilling, such as direct and indirect heat. The asador also mastered timing and temperature, knowing when to turn each piece of meat for optimal juiciness and flavor. The asador also seasoned the meat with only salt, letting the natural taste of the meat shine through.
The parilla, or grill rack, also evolved. It can be made of various materials, such as metal, wood, or stone, and it can be placed on different structures, such as fireplaces, pits, or drums. The parilla can also be adjusted in height and angle to control the heat intensity. The most important factor is the use of hardwood coals from the quebracho tree, which gives the meat a distinctive smoky aroma.
Today, asado is a weekly ritual for many Argentine families. It is usually held on Sundays when people have more time to enjoy the slow-cooking process and the company of their loved ones. The Asado is also a way to express hospitality and friendship, as everyone is invited to join the feast. It is not only about food but also about conversation, music, and laughter.
The asado starts with lighting the fire and preparing the coals. The asador is usually a man who has learned the art of grilling from his father or grandfather. He is in charge of everything related to the meat: choosing it, cutting it, salting it, and cooking it. He is also responsible for serving it to the guests in stages: first the achuras (offal), then the provoleta (grilled cheese), then the main course of various cuts of beef. The guests show their appreciation by applauding the asador or chanting “un aplauso para el asador” (applause for the grill master).
The guests also contribute to the asado by bringing salads, bread, wines, and desserts. They also help with setting up the table, serving drinks, and cleaning up afterward. They also engage in lively conversations about politics, sports, culture, and life in general. They also enjoy listening to music or playing games while waiting for the meat to be ready.
The Asado is more than just a meal; it is an experience that reflects the history and culture of Argentina. It is a way to honor the legacy of the gauchos, who created a unique and delicious way of cooking meat over fire. It is also a way to celebrate the diversity and richness of Argentine cuisine, which incorporates influences from various regions and ethnicities. Most importantly, it is a way to enjoy the simple pleasures of life: good food, good wine, and good company.
So, here's to Argentina, where meat is more than just a meal; it's a way of life.