I was a little bit wobbly both in form and thought as I stepped out of my friend’s apartment in Belgrano into humidity and 85° degree late summer heat. I wore white capris and a sheer, lime-green sleeveless. Having only rarely glanced at my own skin during frigid cold winter months, I had forgotten how pale I was. And having toted black, gray and the occasional Ugg-brown, I had forgotten how to combine the vibrant colors of summer clothing, shades that look good exclusively on tanned skin. After a 13 hour overnight flight, I had arrived back into a life I threw violently away just one year ago, and the unexpected familiarity of what I saw looking out of my friend’s dad’s car window shook me to my roots. I have lived 3 lives since “expat in Recoleta” in 3 different cities in the course of a year and a half. I grabbed my friend’s hand to stabilize myself – I’ve held it both in BA and DC; it was a good bridge between the two.
There was no need to ask what I wanted my first meal to be. We sat at a table outside Las Cholas and ordered. A morcilla, some mollejas and the mighty trio – tira, vacío, entraña . My friend, appropriately, ordered a half-pinguino of red to match the meat while I, inappropriately, wanted white. I hand’t fully enjoyed a white for a while because of the cold. I wanted the cool, dry frost in the heat of the sun. Like a total newb I looked around for tables with ashtrays to see whether that was still allowed with outdoor seating. It is. Hopefully it will always be.
My first proper morcilla criolla in a year happened to be one of the best I’ve ever eaten. Or maybe they’re all the same and it was just the distance that made my taste-buds grow fonder. Holding my knife perpendicular to the surface, I poked the tip straight in and then proceeded to split the case. It snapped a loud, healthy snap and released the vapor locked within. The brownish violet filling of piggy blood and offal flooded my willing mouth, burning my palate ever so lightly and coating my tongue with its thick velvet texture. Salt and pepper and maybe a tiny bit of garlic accented the deep, dark flavor of the blood, which occupied a perfectly peaceful place between sweet and metallic. It needed no bread or side, definitely nothing acidic to take away from the wonderfully dank taste.
My other beloved meat treat so lamentably inaccessible in the U.S. is mollejas, beef sweetbreads of the thymus. Sure, every once in a while it pops up on a bistro menu, a whole teaspoonful of the stuff drenched in some sort of creamy white sauce topping a bowlful of gnocchi. But not like in Argentina, not asado-style. Here it’s kept whole, the huge meaty hunks of the stuff thrown on the grill for the exact right amount of time for it to cook through but remain tender. When not overcooked but cooked over high heat, mollejas develop a charred, crunchy exterior that coats the skinnier bits. Inside it becomes mushy and soft, melting in the mouth almost as readily as brain. It is doused in lemon juice to clean up the murky, innardsy flavor but only a tiny bit. The latter is by no means masked by the bright citrus.
Our trio of meats came on a separate cutting board, straightforward with a side of creamy mashed pumpkin + fries which neither of us touched. There’s the tira, which translates roughly into shortribs. In Argentina these are cut much shorter than in the U.S. Close to the bone and thus full of flavor, the meat got crispy and crackled under my teeth as I chewed it off the rib. There’s also vacío, which is a flank steak, a cut unique – I think – to Argentina and neighboring Uruguay, It’s a relatively thick, juicy piece of beef with a coat of fat on only one side. On the grill, the fat gets crispy and passes its moisture on to the adjoined meat, keeping the latter juicy and tender. This particular cut was also juicy and tender, though the fatty layer became a tad chewy in some parts. Not the perfect vacío- that was to come later on in my trip. Entraña is probably my favorite cut, as it comes in a more modest size, but is probably one of the more flavorful of steaks. It’s a thin skirt steak from the plate, tender and clean in flavor without too much fat to outshine the taste of flesh. Some chimichurri came in a rammekin on the side – parsley, oregano, garlic seasoned with red wine vinegar and a layer of bright yellow oil levitating over the top. I used some of it on the vacío to give an herbal kick to the fattier parts, but refrained from using it with anything else. Goes better with choripan anyway…
The wine helped me loosen up and take in everything around me – the sun, the street, the trees, the people, the lack of cellular data on my phone (and the consequential lack of work emails). But it was that familiar snap of morcilla casing and the citrussy, innardsy cream bursting forth from within the mollejas that pulled me back down to earth, fixing my feet firmly to a spot on the map. In Cañitas, in Buenos Aires, in Argentina, below the Equator. As I chewed the flesh of happy, grass-fed cow, I shifted gears and fell into an old rhythm.
“On vacation, visiting a friend” I had said at customs.
“Reliving the good parts of a past life, getting closure from the bad ones and seeing what could have been…” would have been a more honest response to “Purpose of travel?” but my answer sollicited far fewer questions.
“Your friend lives here?” “Yes.” “You live there.” “Yes.” And with that, -CHOO-KAH -. Another Argentina stamp in my fat little (North-) American passport.