- Agostino Petroni
- BBC Travel
Martina Ezcurra sprinkled coarse salt on a large piece of meat and then massaged it with her hands.
With a smile, she told me that although the men claim to be the steakhouses, it is the Argentine women who prepare the best meat.
Next to the seasoned steak, on the marble kitchen table was a bowl full of the chimichurri that I had prepared that morning.
It is a mixture of finely chopped parsley, oregano, ground chili and minced garlic mixed with vinegar and vegetable oil.
The bright green sauce looked like Italian pesto, but it was something else entirely.
And later that day, he would learn to sprinkle it over roast beef like a priest anointing with holy oil.
In the courtyard of Ezcurra’s tenement-style house, a kind of shared dwelling in Buenos Aires once inhabited by Italian immigrants in the 19th century, family and friends sat and chatted while waiting for the upcoming party.
At the back of the open space, surrounded by lush trees, Ezcurra’s son, Joaquín, tended to the embers and the meat, asking for a constant replacement of Malbec wine. It takes hours to cook a roast and it is customary that the rotisserie glass is never empty.
When Joaquín brought the first cuts to the table on a wooden board, everyone served a portion. He prepared a plate for me, following something that looked like a ritual– First he grabbed a piece of hot bread, then he chose a slice of meat, and finally he slathered it with a generous dollop of chimichurri.
At first, the chimichurri had a refreshing herbal flavor, but then it revealed a lingering spiciness along with the intensity of the garlic.
It was the first time I had tried the green sauce and I was surprised the harmony with which it was mixed with the flavors of a tasty and smoked meat.
I congratulated Joaquín and his mother, who in return said, with a smile, that now it was part of the family, as if he had completed a rite of passage.
The origin of the chimichurri
While chimichurri is a classic accompaniment to steak, it is also used as a condiment for almost any meat dish in Argentina, from choripán (grilled chorizo) to meat empanadas.
During my travels around the country, the chimichurri was a constant presence.
My nose invaded during a walk through the Feria de San Telmo, an antique market that takes place in Buenos Aires on Sundays.
It was in a jar on the counter of a choripán vendor at the entrance to La Bombonera, Boca Juniors’ soccer stadium.
He also appeared at vineyard tasting tables in the Mendoza region; at roadside restaurants in the desert highlands of Salta and Jujuy; and near a campfire in which lamb was cooked on a stick (stake) in the middle of the Patagonian winds.
There are some legends about the birth of the chimichurri and its name.
The most famous one claims he was the 19th century Irish immigrant James (Jimmy) McCurry who, longing for Worcestershire sauce, a popular UK condiment that’s made from vinegar, molasses, garlic, anchovies and other ingredients, decided to create another flavorful seasoning using local ingredients.
Supposedly, the sauce took its name “Jimmy McCurry”, which became “chimichurri” with Argentine pronunciation.
Others believe that the name “chimichurri” arose in the early nineteenth century during the failed British invasion of the Río de la Plata, the estuary that separates Argentina from Uruguay, when captive British soldiers asked for condiments saying give me the curry (give me the curry), which the Argentines translated into “chimichurri”.
Another story tells that salsa arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with Basque immigrants, who with their millenary culture of roasting with firewood brought tximitxurri, a Basque-style herbal sauce that typically includes herbs, olive oil, vinegar, garlic, and Espelette pepper.
And while many Argentines would proudly claim that it was their own grandmother who invented salsa, some say its roots go back to before Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492.
According to Daniel Balmaceda, Argentine historian and author, the word chimichurri comes from Quechua, an indigenous population from the Andean region of northern Argentina and from long before the arrival of Europeans.
“It was a generic term used to describe strong sauces to accompany and preserve different types of meat,” said Balmaceda.
Whether of Irish, English, Basque or Quechua origin, in the late 19th century chimichurri was used primarily to accompany, and often cover, the strong flavor of freshly scrapped meat cooked on the barbecue or grill, which was brought to the country by Spanish immigrants.
“Chimichurri means friendship”
Donato De Santis, one of the presenters of MasterChef Celebrity Argentina, He said that today – in a country where Argentines eat around 86 kg of meat per capita a year (placing them third in the world ranking) – chimichurri is always present in Argentine families.
“She has an intense love,” De Santis said.
According to him, preparing chimichurri is a ritual and families exchange it with pride. It is both an excuse for a conversation and a form of cultural exchange.
“Chimichurri means friendship and, in Argentina, this has a meaning that does not exist in other parts of the world,” said Eduardo Massa Alcantara, Argentine chef and television presenter.
For him, friends meet for a beer in England or a coffee in Italy, but in Argentina, people invite everyone to eat a barbecue.
They meet for a barbecue despite polarized political positions in a country that has seen nine bankruptcies since gaining independence from Spain in 1816 and tensions between left and right populists.
Some say that the opposition is just one part of Argentine culture, including its food.
“Argentine gastronomy is like Argentina, it isit’s polarized“, analyzed the Argentine María De Los Ángeles Anglesio, a 33-year-old gastronomy specialist.
“The dulce de leche is extremely sweet, the mate is very bitter, the roast is umami (tasty), and if you are not used to it, the chimichurri is also a strong sauce,” he compared.
However, Instead of creating division, the chimichurri unites the Argentines.
Salsa stands as a national anthem for all those who were born or emigrated to the vast lands of Argentina.
It represents a time when the country was the land of hope, which the English travel writer Bruce Chatwin described in his book In Patagonia like the land of the fugitives, of those who seek a better life, of those who pursue a dream.
“There are as many kinds of chimichurri as there are inhabitants in the Republic aArgentina “said Alcántara, who is also one of the judges for the Chimi Cup, a competition that takes place every October at the San Isidro gastronomic fair, “Open Bocas”.
Famous chefs, barbecue lovers and even children show their passion for barbecue by presenting their chimichurri at the competition.
Alcantara said that some people add warm water to help emulsify the oil and vinegar, while others boil the oregano before mixing it with the other herbs.
Some Argentines have a pre-chilled liquid base on hand and others resort to extreme measures such as burying chimichurri bottles to age it and develop the flavor of the sauce, adding an air of mysticism to the process.
Many avoid the use of strong flavored oils like olive that overshadow the taste of the other ingredients and prefer lighter ones like sunflower.
Alcantara, along with other judges, blindly tests hundreds of chimichurris before crowning a winner.
For him, the best is the one with a balanced flavor that complements the taste of meat without dominating it.
In recent decades, the love for chimichurri has expanded beyond the borders of Argentina.
As Argentine restaurants set up around the world, such as Buenos Aires in New York and the Gaucho chain in London, salsa has become popular in cookbooks, articles and recipes on the internet and instructional videos on YouTube.
However, most Argentines will say that the best chimichurri is find in Argentina, particularly in a roast.
From Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego to the Iguazu Falls, locals gather to celebrate friendship and food on a Sunday afternoon, stoking the fire, uncorking bottles of Malbec, and sprinkling generous scoops of the beloved seasoning.
Culinary Roots is a BBC Travel series connecting the weird and local foods that are part of a place’s heritage.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.