If you want to get to know more about Uruguay’s (and some of Argentina’s) food, go watch this Anthony Bourdain episode. Then come back.
So, what did you notice?
Lack of vegetables? Sometimes, check.
Simply, the food here is the lovechild between empanadas and pizza. Ósea, think of Latin America and Italy. Somewhere in the middle, there’s Uruguay.
During my month here, I’ve had some of the best meals of my life – and no, they weren’t found in lauded restaurants or through Yelp reviewers; many were instead enjoyed in homes. So, if you come here, make friends. That is, unless you were planning on breaking into a home and charming them into giving you food.
First, I’ll play out a typical day of eating for you. Then, I’ll highlight some of those “best” meals.
6-9 AM: Wake up. Maybe you snack on some café con leche, galletitas, un pedacito de fruta.
1 PM: The time to eat, for real. Lunch is the heaviest meal of the day here, and where I live, Fray Bentos, most businesses close midday.
At first, I was peeved; I come from NYC, where things are open all the time, even against your doctor’s wishes! That is, you can get cookies delivered at 3 AM and of course grab a slice of pizza around 2 PM! It’s beyond thought to think that a restaurant would close for Sunday. But in many small towns here, the custom is to eat lunch en casa, with the fam. I’m starting to remember those TV ads that advised families to share more meals together – but of course, in the USA, the heaviest meal is typically dinner.
5 PM: Merienda, snack time. You might have some milk or yogurt, un pedacito de pan con mantequilla y/o dulce de leche. Dulce de leche is also called manjar, and the closest thing I can compare it to is creamy caramel.
8-11 PM: Here’s one of the features of the Uruguayan diet that most resembles what I know of that in Italy. Dinner is late – anywhere from 8 to 11 PM, depending on the household. It can be heavier or lighter; I’ve had everything from full-blown asados, or barbecues, to a few empanadas de jamón y queso, ham and cheese.
If you’re travelling from the US, you’re more likely to have to adjust your eating times. And if you’re vegetarian or vegan, give it up for a little while. (I say that like it’s easy, which I know it’s not; I was a pescatarian before coming here. But it’s just not worth it to miss out on the meat, dairy, and eggs. On the latter: I swear the yolks are of gold – a darker, more scrumptious fat.)
Now onto those comidas destacadas, those exquisite culinary experiences that I hinted to:
1.) Yesterday’s lunch. I’m living with a host family that’s made up of a mom, dad, daughter and son. Usually the mom, Adriana, makes all the food, but she and her kids are away in Spain visiting relatives. So, it’s just me and the dad here right now. When we found out that we would have to fend for ourselves for a few weeks, he looked at me and asked, “¿Te gusta el arroz?” Do you like rice?
With this threat of impending nutritional deficits veiled as a question, I thought I would have to be cooking all the time. The first meal he did make for us, after all, was exactly what he said. Rice.
But yesterday, he oven-baked a beautiful lunch of chorizo sausage, steak, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and onions. I couldn’t get enough of it, giving you another reason to find some way to enter a casa uruguaya at lunch time. Make friends with me, and we’ll see.
2.) The tartas. Here, a common food is a quiche-like dish called tarta, which is baked with a bottom and sometimes top crust. They come with various fillings, but are generally less eggy than quiches. Some classics I always come across are tarta de jamón y queso, pascualina, y con queso y manzana y/o pera.
3.) The empanadas. Say what you will about your oily obsession, the fetish of feeling the grease stain your shirt while munching on an empanada frita dominicana. But since being here, I’ve come to prefer the empanadas uruguayas, which are typically baked instead of fried. They also tend to have their masas más pastosas, or doughier dough, which is a textural obsession of mine. Lastly, they’re more likely to have raisins and eggs inside. Remember my thing with eggs.
So, in my heart, as well as in this video, Uruguayan empanadas win.
4.) Chajá. I made eye-love to this delicacy upon first gaze, wondering and simultaneously not caring what it had inside. Turns out it’s a fluffy pastry made with cake, dulce de leche, and whipped cream, named after a bird.
5.) About the dulce de leche… Ok, it’s good, but I often come across versions that are just too sweet. Uruguayan life hack: If you like your sweets less cavity-forming, choose a manjar that’s lighter in color; an expert told me that the darker ones have more sugar.
Plus, I always prefer peanut butter to the caramel spread, and have desperately broadcasted to the world my maní mania. Don’t even think about cashews, unless, of course, you’re reasonable enough to buy nuts and make butter with a blender
Sarah Simon is currently based in Uruguay and will be writing more about her time there throughout the coming months. See more of her writing here.