food / travel

Tapas In Argentina: Spanish Fare Blends Fun And Affordability

Sharing food and Spanish-style snacking are trending in Buenos Aires, as cash-conscious, younger customers tire of the standard restaurant fare and a big bill

Tapas time
Tapas time
Adriana Santagati

BUENOS AIRES —Not too long ago in Argentina, almost every restaurant menu had the same three-course format, with a starter, main course, and dessert. Fortunately, the blessed dessert is still there. And still safely at the end. But everything else seems to be changing, and the distinction between starter and main course is becoming a thing of the past.

The trend now is for smaller dishes that are often shared, in the middle of the table — Spanish style. Indeed, versions of Spain's tapas and (the bigger) raciones are winning adepts in all different kinds of restaurants, from Asian to Latin American, and even in people's private kitchens.

"Tapas come from Spain, where people would have a drink and there would be a snack on a piece of bread or toast, which they would place on top of the glass, which is why it's called a tapa (or top)," explains Martín Arrojo, chef at Jornal, an informal eatery in the Saavedra district of the Argentine capital. "The little plates (platitos) are basically small dishes."

A popular place right now is Sifón, which opened in 2019 in Saavedra. Typical snacks it serves include chistorra sausages with bread and eggs, or matambre beef slices with mashed potatoes and cauliflower. The snacking concept is "a quest" says one of its owners, Juan Manuel Bidegain. Everything is grilled here and small, with a portion costing 200 pesos (around 3 euros). The waitress recommends ordering two per person, and customers, mostly millennials or a little older, generally follow her recommendation. Of course with tapas, you can decide exactly how much to eat.

Julián del Pino, a chef at the Vico Wine Bar, which serves snacks and wine by the glass, says "diners calculate their portions. Usually with our format it's three or four per person." The business pioneered this format when it opened in 2017, and has three branches now.

In Opio, which serves Asian street food, chef Diego Rizzi says snacking allows you to "manage your budget. You can eat something for very little money. Instead of two people sharing one dish, they can share various little plates."

Tapas at Sí, Pastrón in Buenos Aires, Argentina — Photo: Sí, Pastrón via Instagram

A co-owner of Sí Pastrón (sandwiches and more), Sebastián Montero Horianski, says customers are curious and "want to try new flavors. Obviously your wallet's a big issue in this recession, but people do not want to stop indulging entirely. Rather they're looking for ways to tweak their budget. The little plate meets both points: the experience and a price that lets you live it."

But as Clarín found speaking with a dozen or so businesses, customers and restaurants may not agree on what suits them best. "Rather the opposite," say the owners of Ajo Negro in the Chacarita district, who observe that making little dishes requires as much effort as a standard plate. Their outlet serves seafood snacks, and opened in 2019 with the idea that customers had tired of the three-course format.

Small portions avoid boredom, and flavors can be registered for longer.

Most chefs agree that another reason for this bourgeoning concept is wanting to relax the restaurant experience and try new things. Paul Porras, a partner of Ronconcón, which serves different Latin American foods, says "two or more" can enjoy the tapas format, which is also "much more interesting" for the restaurant.

Gonzalo Aramburu, the creator of Aramburu, hailed by TripAdvisor users as one of world's best restaurants, also chose the snacking format for his second outlet. It gives customers "access to more options' and helps them "understand a little better" this way of eating. Small portions, he says, avoid "boredom, and the flavors can be registered for longer."

Christina Sunae, a local Filipina chef, says "eating has changed. People want something tastier and faster, and they're tired" of Argentine staples like meat pies and veal Milanese. She owned one restaurant and opened an Asian tapas bar, Apunena, in Chacarita where she lives. "I always wanted to open a tiny little place where I could make any food that day," she says.

Is all this related to the age of diners? Nacho Trotta, the chef of Bestia, says it has more to do with curiosity than youth. The snacking trend is evident in many cities, he says, and "in street food concepts that have even earned Michelin recognition." Snacking, he adds, is established in Madrid, in the Basque Country, the Middle East and Asia.

And what do these changes mean for restaurants? Many charge customers extra for sharing a dish, and there was a failed attempt to legislate against this practice. But what the law could not stop is being changed by demand-side pressures. Fewer restaurants now charge the punitive sum for not ordering a proper dish, says Carlos Yanelli, president of the Buenos Aires Chamber of Restaurants. His own restaurant, Estilo Campo, does not do it and has encouraged the practice of sharing dishes; that was its response to the "little plates," and to "customer demands," says Yanelli.

Snacking may have been born of cultural changes or the recession or both, but sharing and tapas have come to stay in a city always looking for new ways to eat.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!