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It's Heritage Vs. Health In Argentina's Gastronomical Battle

Traditional Argentinian dishes (here, empanadas) tend to be somewhat heavy...
Traditional Argentinian dishes (here, empanadas) tend to be somewhat heavy...
Hector Pavon

BUENOS AIRES – Eating is no longer just the primitive act of satiating hunger. It is a process that includes production, consumption, and evaluation for preparation of the next gastronomical experience.

It’s a hedonistic experience with a concern for nutritional value, especially as the ”o” word – obesity – keeps cropping up. For most people, importance is put on eating things that are healthy, tasty, and new.

The foodie revolution is taking over the world – including Argentina. Two experts talk to us about their opinions on their country’s eating habits.

Multi-talented cook, Narda Lepes and nutritionist Monica Katz co-authored a new book: We Are What We Eat. It’s all about food – from its natural origins to the plate it’s served on.

It is paradoxical that in this era, obesity and chronic illnesses are widespread. We have such a wide variety of chefs, restaurants – both alternative and traditional – and products on the market but still, we can’t seem to be able to put our heads together and change this unbalanced situation.

There are so many excellent cooks who know how to communicate, plenty of people know about nutrition, and there are even celebrities who are jumping on the bandwagon. Despite all of this, nothing has as much strength as the market itself.

But, we all make up the market, right? So, why are we not rising to the occasion? “Can we do something to make our children live longer?” asks Katz. “Children used to live longer than their parents but if we continue the way we are today, with such high levels of infantile obesity and diabetes, our children will die before us – and our grandchildren too.”

“Nutrition, cuisine, and gastronomy go together," says Katz. "Specialists need to try to communicate healthy concepts in a simple way, and put an end to the idea that eating has to be an intellectual exercise. Instead of counting calories or carbohydrates, eating should become a nutritious pleasure.”

Argentine gastronomy

Some Argentinians think that they are always the exception and never the rule. So, when you tell them you cannot eat an entire salami with a baguette in an hour they answer, “my grandfather ate salami all his life and died when he was 90.” They never mention the 400,000 people who did die because of eating so much salami at 60 – just the one who didn’t.

Another concern is that Argentinian gastronomy is losing its identity. Is Wiener schnitzel Argentinian? No, actually it’s German, but if you ask any family in how often they eat milanesa, you’ll notice it’s a weekly staple in most households. What about pasta? Again, no, it’s Italian, but pasta with tomato sauce is popular all over Argentina.

You can get empanadas all over the world now, which are, in fact, Argentinian. How many times a month does the population eat the traditional pork soup, locro? Not as much as before, apparently, and only in certain regions. This is a discussion that must be held – many countries will defend their gastronomic culture until death, but why is Argentina lagging behind?

Lepes believes that the problem is both geographical and cultural. In the northern regions they eat a lot of carbonada beef stew, baked empanadas, and tamales ­– all heavy dishes. But in the center of the country, there is a lot less production of produce because of the jungle and the desert.

Another problem is that the people who want to be eternally young, skinny, and never get sick, have gotten the idea that eating these traditional dishes implies cheating on their diets – it is seen as low quality food. But, yet, they will still eat food from gas stations...

Gastronomic syncretism

A huge problem is that we cannot agree on what dishes are traditionally Argentinian. Cooks have begun to get together and reach out to people like Katz, asking for courses on nutrition with traditional Argentinian cooking. The local produce is there and, of course, healthier versions can be replicated without losing the essence of the dishes.

Lepes believes that while there are people who want the nutritional makeover, there is a need to identify the culture in the cuisine. “We need to find identities in Argentinian dishes, we can’t try to have a Peruvian one because that’s not us – we’re a more modern mix.”

“Most of the original inhabitants of Argentina were killed, very few indigenous Indians survived and not a single black slave," Lepes notes. "Since then, waves of new immigrants have come here. We still say that we’re a country of immigrants and mostly declare them as European, but now there are people from the Middle East and the rest of Latin America. When will we start seeing cilantro or chili as something less foreign?”

Soon, there will be a gastronomic syncretism and Argentina must take advantage of it, like so many other countries have done. But, nutritionally speaking, what people eat everyday in their own homes is where the problem lies.

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