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Asado v BBQ: An Epic Showdown Emblematic of Meaning

July 7, 2009

You would think that in the land of beef would abound the best hamburger in existence. Wrong. Here is where asado reigns and even steak is hard to come by (that might be an exaggeration).

But let’s start from the beginning.

The word “asar” literally means to grill or roast. Thus, an asado is a roast or a grill. Not too far from barbecue but you’ll see why it is momentarily.

The word “barbecue” actually is thought to come from the Spanish word “barbacoa” that certainly refers to the grilling, smoking or curing of meat over coals (usually) and has taken on much more meaning in the U.S., especially since Kingsford, Heinz, and other assorted charcoal and sauce companies have become involved.

So why is asado so often translated as barbecue and why is it not?

First, an asado takes, well, forever in many cases. At least 4 hours or so when you attend a real one at someone’s home or a house in the country. The preparation of the coals–which by the way are never made from sawdust and treated with lighter fluid like in the U.S., but rather people use either wood directly and shovel the “brasas” (lit coals) under the parrilla (grill) or they use carbon made from distilling wood which comes in big chunks that resemble the logs they came from–is the first stark contrast. In the States in many cases there aren’t even coals present. You push a button on your gas grill and poof.

Second, the cooking process is long and slow in Argentina, especially for a large group where the “asador” (grillman) will usually want to get the entire section of beef ribs. He (yes, always he), will cook it over the course of about 2 hours. The aroma is painfully delicious.

Third, the role of women is clearly defined. I am in no way attempting to offend anyone, it’s just that standards and practices in Argentina are such that the women set the table and make the salads and potato dishes while the asador cooks and the rest of the men stand next to the parrilla waiting for scraps.

Fourth, the cuts of meat. Here is where the greatest difference lies. The principle cuts of meat are asado (beef ribs in this case, not the grill itself) and vacio (flank steak). It is odd, at somebody’s house, to have them do an asado with bife de lomo (filet mignon), colita de cuadril (rump steak), bife de chorizo (porterhouse) or any other steak cuts that we are used to in the U.S.

In addition, achuras (offal) make up about half of the meal! Riñon (kidney), chinchulines (intestine), chorizo (sausage), morcilla (blood sausage), molleja (sweetbread), tripa gorda (tripe) and sometimes even rarer things are always present at an Argentine asado.

They are also always served first and together. Then comes the meat. Then dessert. It’s a whole ceremony. You end the day or night stuffed for sure and maybe drunk as well. But certainly happy.

In the States we do things much faster and we do burgers and dogs and sometimes steak. There is never mate (hierba mate), most people don’t even know what that is, we usually drink beer, and quite often sports are involved.

The idea of a gas barbeque in Argentina could be offensive.

So what do these two methods indicate in our cultures:

1. The importance placed on time. Cleary Americans are much more time conscious than Argentines. It is bred into our culture. “Time is money.” We do things faster. Not only that but we are always doing something. We have drinks, or go bar hopping, or watch the game…. We do these things at a specific time normally. Having coffee is done at a specific time. So is having drinks, watching the game, etc. In Argentina, having coffee can take 2-3 hours. And clearly, the time it takes to do an asado vs. bbq and when people show up to the asado and bbq illustrate the cultural differences.

2. The differences in what is considered “good meat”. Many Americans are grossed out by offal. We prefer steaks and hamburgers. Why not offal? I found many of those items incredible when I came to Argentina. In the U.S. we throw them out (or perhaps make hot dogs out of them).

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mispa Haque permalink
    July 7, 2009 3:42 am

    Haha i love the irony “time is money.” Americans have all the time in the world yet no money.

  2. July 7, 2009 4:59 pm

    Thanks for the articulate explanation of this Argentine ritual which I have attended many times during my ten years here. I will pass this on to visitors so they are informed and don’t expect a typical American barbeque of hotdogs and hamburgers.

  3. July 7, 2009 9:26 pm

    Thanks for the comment Jantango! Please spread the word!

  4. Paul permalink
    July 10, 2009 12:00 am

    My wife and I are going to live half the time in Mendoza and I appreciate your blogs. We have much to learn and much to experience.

    When doing the plans for our house we were asked where our asado pit was going to be. I do not grill (but will be learning, lol)so I said I didnt know we would be putting one in. After being looked at like I was from Mars I understood my mistake and now look forward to my new grill.

    • July 10, 2009 3:34 am

      Thanks for the comment Paul!

      Yeah, not having a parrilla in Argentina is like not having a car in LA (although I didn’t have one–and yes, people looked at me funny). Grilling is one of my favorite things to do now, mostly because it distracts me from the waiting to eat the meat!

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