Food writer Nicola Miller explains the importance of a weekly market in Argentina in highlighting what has become a hidden culture. . . and celebrates it with a mouth-watering traditional choripán
The weekly Feria de Mataderos, held in the old slaughterhouse district of Buenos Aires, celebrates a rural Argentine culture that was hidden behind a metropolitan smokescreen of European exceptionalism for too long. The depiction of Argentinians as “more European than Latina” was (and remains) a convenient way to obfuscate the poor treatment of its indigenous, African and Latina people and deny their critical influence on the country’s history.
In Mataderos, you will find a rich mix of cultures that far better represent the true Argentina: Gauchos, Porteños and migrant workers, Campesinos and descendants of the African people who, over 200 years ago, arrived in Buenos Aires, the location of one of South America’s largest slave ports. Back in 2020, Celestina Olulode reported in the Buenos Aires Times: “Official records show that at the start of the 19th century, one-third of the population of Buenos Aires was black”, but mainstream food programming often fails to reflect this. When TV covers Asado (Argentinian grilling), it rarely mentions its humble and practical origins. All too often, programme-makers focus on the higher-end city restaurants that have repackaged the skills of the asador, ignoring that Argentina is multi-racial.
Add to this the fact that legislation has made it extremely hard for street food vendors to operate in the city because their food was perceived as inferior, and you have a significant disconnect. As Buenos Aires-based Kevin Vaughn writes: “The history of street food in Buenos Aires is drenched in tales of racial discrimination, classism and opportunity imbalances from the moment the Spanish settlers landed.” Punitive legislation focused on neighbourhoods where Black and Brown people lived and worked. So, if you wonder why this capital city lacks a comprehensive street food culture, there’s your answer.
This is why the Feria (country fair) in Mataderos is so important. On a Sunday, stalls selling rural food and crafts line the broad streets, and the air is filled with the fragrant smoke from the many asados (grills) where vendors cook the meat for which Argentina is famous. Dulce de leche and honey is everywhere, from small jars to huge tubs. There are cardboard trays filled with alfajores and empanadas and wheels of country cheese; charcuterie trussed with bright, netted string, tooled leather chaps and knife sheaths; and racks of felt boleros, the hats worn by Gauchos. As you browse, the rich, dark beat of the bombo legüero drums throbs its way into your marrow. It is a sound you feel first, then hear. Instead of the Tango, locals and visitors perform Zambas, the traditional folk dances of the campo whose roots lie in the Amerindian people of Bolivia, Peru and Chile. Diners flock to benches set up between the colonnades. There’s the clatter of horse hooves on the cobbles as the riders arrive to compete in the Carerra de Sortija – the ‘Race of the Ring’, loud bursts of traditional songs, the bright flicker of scarves waved by the dancers and permeating all of this, the sizzle of meat grilling on the parillas. It is both modern and timeless.
I did not know that around 1891, Antonio Gongaza, a Black Argentinian chef, played an essential role in popularising asado by bringing this old country technique to the starched tablecloths of the city. In 1931, he published the Argentine Practical Cook, which became the bestseller responsible for reviving rural recipes. And this was when chefs were not lionised as they are today, which makes his influence all the more impressive. It was common for the owners of enslaved cooks to send them away to learn how to cook in the classical French style, but Gongaza innovated, presenting standard Gaucho recipes with indigenous, African and Latina roots as haute cuisine; something to which diners could aspire. We should not underestimate the courage this took.
Initially, the fact that Gongaza made his own chorizo was what drew my attention as I researched Argentinian football food. Game nights are a cacophony of the senses as thousands of supporters are herded into stadia and fortified with thick hunks of chorizo sausage-stuffed bread topped with rivers of herby chimichurri or salsa criollo. The choripán is a sandwich designed to be eaten with one hand on horseback and, now, by crowds as they push their way into a football stadium or tramp the streets. They call these sandwiches ‘choripán’, a portmanteau of ‘chori’ (sausage) and ‘pán’ (bread), and they were eaten initially by Gauchos as they herded cattle on the pampas. And now, people are funnelled along the city streets in much the same way.
Despite its name, don’t confuse the choripán with Spanish or Mexican-style chorizo. Made from beef and pork (or beef and veal), flavoured with red wine, paprika and the maker’s personal blend of spices and herbs, which may or may not contain nutmeg, clove, cinnamon and fennel, this is a juicily soft sausage because it is not smoked or dried. The bread must be sturdy enough to hold the meat and its herbaceous oily, drippy sauce securely. If it is very fluffy bread, I pull out some of the crumbs to make a cradle for the sausage, fry them in the fat, then dress the choripán with them. This is a quick meal, the only stipulation being the chimichurri needs to sit a while, so make this sauce early in the day or the night before.
Visit the Feria de Mataderos and you’ll see vendor after vendor selling freshly-made, traditional choripán, and modern ‘twists’ are relatively rare. I think this is a good thing because one first needs to acquaint oneself with the ur-version. One also needs to remember the tendency to ‘gentrify’ traditional meals and resist this whenever possible. My friend tells me the choripán is known as a ‘Mata Hambre’; the ‘hunger killer’, and recommends you order or make two: one to wolf down because you are desperately famished, and the second to eat more slowly, accompanied by a glass of Argentinian Malbec.
Quite a few stores and independent butchers sell chorizo-style sausages, and I sometimes use the ones from Waitrose, which are chunky and succulent. Still, I strongly recommend ordering Argentine Gaucho Sausages from Tom Hixson or the Argentine Chorizo Sausages from Primalcut.co.uk. You can buy Argentine olive oil from Farmdrop and Abel & Cole, although this is not necessary. Shropshire-based business Netherton Foundry makes a range of Argentine-style black iron Chapas (similar to a cast-iron griddle). They have legs so they can be set over an open fire to give you a taste of Gaucho-style cooking in the outdoors. Cooking over a campfire means there’s no need to wait for charcoal to heat, and when it has cooled down, the legs can be removed for portability. Find the full range at netherton-foundry.co.uk/Fire-cooking
One sausage per portion of bread
A white baguette, flute, baton or individual crusty rolls
Oil a ridged and heavy griddle/fry pan until it is good and hot, then fry the sausages until they are cooked through and well-browned. Some Asadors split or ‘butterfly’ the sausages to increase their crunch factor. You can also grill them, but make sure you brush each one with oil first. I use olive oil.
Remove sausages from the pan/grill and mop up some of their paprika-stained juices with the cut edges of your bread. Make sure when you split the bread that you leave a hinge. Don’t cut it completely in half, or you’ll incur massive chimichurri spillage each time you bite into it.
Place each sausage in its bread and spoon over the chimichurri. Give it a good squish before you bite into it.
(Enough for six portions as a garnish. It keeps well refrigerated and is gorgeous with meats, grilled vegetables or fish, so don’t worry about wastage if there’s just you!)
Don’t process your chimichurri into a thick, formless paste. It is meant to be chunky and oily. Taste as you go; this is not a formula written in stone. If you want more chillies and garlic, go for it.
30g finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 small red chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
¾ teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon coarse salt
Black pepper to taste
125ml extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Prepare the ingredients and mix them in a bowl. Cover and store in a cool place for at least four hours (preferably overnight) for the best flavour.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale
Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020