26 May 2008

"So... what do you eat when you are REALLY hungry?"

In the present moment, May 2008

For vegetarian (& other visitors) to BA:-

One early afternoon I was in the company of several vegetarian tango friends visiting Buenos Aires. For lunch, we settled for convenience upon a resturant along Av. Sante Fe after a trip to Comme Il Faut, just around the corner 1.5 block away.

Besides myself and another friend, there were 3 vegetarians (2 girls, 1 guy) around the table having lunch. The conversation turned to the topic of finding vegetarian fare in Buenos Aires. When the mozo (waiter) came to take our orders, one of the girls, a Bulgarian with pretty eyes, decided to try her luck to ask for a tomato juice. The expectant mozo, poised with pen and notepad in hand, paused slightly, evidently non-plussed by this unusual request. He gave a polite but definitive reply "No hay!" (There isn´t any). Fruit juices in restaurants here are strictly FRUIT juices. Ask for an fruit juice or what is known here as "licuador" - orange and grapefruit juice are ubiquitous....even peach, banana, apple etc, and you will be fine. Anything else more exotic and you are likely out of luck.

As a devoted red meat lover, I do not perhaps have a proper appreciation of the ordeal vegetarians face in Buenos Aires. My own diet when eating out, consist of an unhealthy but happy regime of pizzas and meat-based dishes, so the lack of palatable vegetarian dishes never bothered me much. My own limited perspective had always been - well, after all, there are always salads on the menu no matter where you go, so perhaps it wasn´t as rough on vegetarians as it has been rumoured.

Granted the choices may not be very exciting, unless one ventures to the finer and hipper dining spots in Palermo or Recoleta. The typical house salad on the menu is an uninteresting mixture of lettuce, tomato and onions with a simple salad dressing. Other common choices available would perhaps be a Caesar or Russian Salad (Ensalada Rusa: potato, egg, carrot and peas with mayonnaise). Plus there are a few vegetarian pastas and risottos too, which seemed decent enough I thought.

Over lunch, we discovered that due to a lack of time to cook in, our Bulgarian friend had been existing on a limited diet of cheese, nuts and bread for the last week. She recounted her comic-tragic experiences in Buenoes Aires being vegetarian:

"I am vegetarian, so I will have to look for vegetarian dishes when eating out in the city" she explained to a porteno.

"Ah! I see, I see" replied the porteno, nodding sympathetically.

"But, what do you eat when you are REALLY hungry?" asked the porteno a few seconds later.

Oh dear. Poor things (I mean the vegetarians).

In case readers suspect the sincerity of the above mentioned porteno, I have heard stories that requests by customers to leave meat (carne) out of the dish may still result in liberal smatterings of chicken and ham. Don´t laugh, but some people here do not consider those 2 items as "carne".

The medley of guidebooks on Buenos Aires mentioned a handful of interesting vegetarian restaurants in the city, scattered around Palermo, Recoleta-Barrio Norte or sometimes in tourist-filled San Telmo.

Put this in the perspective of tango dancers who are visiting Buenos Aires for a few short weeks. Time is a luxury. Days are spent rushing between classes, hunting down shoes and CDs while nights are passed amidst milongas and practicas. Time flies quickly. Most tango visitors I met stayed around the central city area; they have limited time to cook and usually grab a bite outside between tango activities. So unless one makes an effort to make time out to seek out these vegetarian establishments, mouth-watering vegetarian meals will not be daily fare.

My lunch companions and I joked that with the on-and-off (currently ON) food strike affecting Buenos Aires*, vegetarians will survive the longest if we starve. And finally have the last laugh.

For vegetarian visitors to Buenos Aires, if you happen to be in the vicinity of Av. Corrientes & Callao and need a bite, perhaps you could check out this vegetarian restaurant call "La Ciboulette" around the corner on Sarmiento & Callao (Sarmiento 1808):-

Incredibly, this seemingly little known restaurant is actually a vegetarian "tenedor libre" (literal translation: "Free fork". ie. Eat-all-you-want for a set price) with a smorgasbord of vegetarian meals. Perhaps here, vegetarians can finally find a relatively decent selection of dishes. Unfortunately I can´t give a review of the quality, and I hope readers would forgive my lack of spirit as it is not my natural inclination to choose vegetarian establishments for my eating pleasure. Hopefully this little post-it note on the community bulletin board will help to ease the lot of visitors to meat-obsessed Buenos Aires.

Incidentally, this restaurant is also located nearby one of the sites used for CITA (Congreso Internacional de Tango Argentino) held in March every year in Buenos Aires. So CITA visitors can seek out this place when pressed for time during the festival.

The story with the Bulgarian friend has a happy ending. Five minutes later, the same mozo returned to our table and announced the surprising news "Ms, I am pleased to say that we can indeed prepared tomato juice if you like us to bring you one. Would that be fine with you?"

The tomato juice was drank gratefully.

* El Paro del Campo (The strike of the rural area):
In March, the government and the rural sector embarked upon a tussle of war over the proposed rise in exportation taxes of food product. Basically, with the strong Euro and US dollar against the Argentine peso, it is much more lucrative for the large agricultural industry to export home grown products like beef, vegetables, grains etc to Europe and United States. This government wants to raise export taxes and at the same time discourage the outflux of the best products from the country. The agriculturalists struck back against the government by stopping food from coming into Buenos Aires.

The 1st strike lasted for over 3 weeks in March. Beef and pork literally disappeared from the supermarkets shelves. Popular supermarket chains like "Coto" and "Disco" displayed sadly empty "carne" sections, only chicken was left. During this time of "sin-carne" in Buenos Aires, I saw portenos poking with dismayed expressions at the packets of chicken left on the supermarket shelves, which they either bought with a lack of enthusiasm or simply walked away from. You can tell which food "groups" come first for the porteno taste buds :)

In April, a truce was finally agreed upon between the warring protagonists, so the blockade lifted for 3 weeks in April while the government and the agriculture sector engaged in more talks. In early May, talks broke down and the agriculturalists went on their 2nd strike to continue their protest. As I type, apparently today the negotiations took a turn for the worse. Bit of a debacle...

This time round, the supermarkets and wholesalers are prepared. They stocked up on food during the truce in April. Readers will be glad to know that to date in Coto and Disco, the shelves are flushed with Carne, Pollo (chicken) y Verdura (vegetables).

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