When she announced her plans to move to Argentina, vegetarian Sophie Weber's friends told her she was crazy. You'll starve, they told her. Haven't you heard? Argentina is all beef, all the time.
Sophie, a 21-year-old student from Munich, Germany, wasn’t worried. Having been a vegetarian for all but brief period of carnivorous rebellion, her vegetarian survival skills were finely tuned.
As it turns out, Sophie is not only surviving, but thriving. She's discovered South America's best kept secret: Argentina is a vegetarian's paradise.
That said, in this meat-macho society, beef takes the top billing while the vegetarian items quietly wait to be noticed without fanfare or introduction. Argentina's relationship with vegetarianism is more of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. It exists, but it is the country's dirty little secret.
This means visitors shouldn't expect to find the soy or tofu-based "meat-free" products that one normally finds in the frozen food aisle. According to English vegetarian Jacqui Henderson, there just isn't a market for these types of products in Argentina.
Although Henderson misses the meatless tofu products from back home, don't feel too bad for her. She's the first to admit that things are pretty good in Argentina. Her husband, Stephen Tyler, also a vegetarian, concurs and is quick to point out that he hasn't lost any weight since moving to Argentina.
Annette Roldan, a 45-year old New Yorker living in Buenos Aires agrees. Contrary to what many people expect, she has never has trouble finding something to eat in a restaurant. According to Roldan, the amazingly rich pastas make it very easy to be a vegetarian in Argentina.
Although significant numbers of Italian immigrants have had a profound effect on local cuisine, don't think that Argentine pastas are just "Italian food" repackaged. Weber, Tyler and Henderson all agree that the Argentine pastas, with their farm-fresh and flavorful ingredients, stand apart from their Italian cousins.
But pasta isn't the only specialty on the vegetarian survival list. Vegetarians rave about the tartas, which are best described as savory pies. They usually consist of an open-faced pastry shell stuffed with any combination of fillings.
Some are like quiches, but others are filled with broccoli, pumpkin, spinach, cheese or any combination of the above. One of the most popular is the tarta de calabaza (pumpkin tart), which consists of a pastry shell stuffed with a rich buttery puree of pumpkin and oozing cheese.
For a more stereotypical Argentine dish steeped in the gaucho (cowboy) tradition, try an empanada. Next to beef, empanadas are Argentina's most famous signature food. They consist of dough, not unlike pizza dough, wrapped into a fist-sized, half-moon shaped pocket filled with any combination of savory fillings.
All of this is fine and good, but what do you do when your friends and family want to eat at a traditional Argentine parrilla (barbecue)? Parrillas are meat HQ in Argentina and are hard to avoid. More important, as any local will tell you, these barbeque joints aren't just restaurants, they are an integral part of Argentine culture.
Don't despair. Most parrillas offer huge varieties of meat alternatives, including vegetables a la parrilla (grilled on the barbecue) or al horno (baked in the oven). Menus nearly always include pages of vegetable side dishes such as pumpkin and potato purees, spinach, sweet potatoes and combinations of the above. One of Henderson and Tyler's favorite parrilla items is provoleta, a large square of seasoned and grilled provolone.
It doesn't take long to realize that Argentina has a lot to offer vegetarians. Despite the well-advertised meat culture in Argentina, Weber, Roldan, Henderson and Tyler all dismiss travel advisories for vegetarians as hogwash. Weber and Roldan both say that being a vegetarian in Argentina is both easier and more enjoyable than in Europe.
That said, vegetarianism is largely misunderstood in Argentina. Oddly, ham, which vegetarians categorically consider to be meat, sometimes appears on vegetarian dishes. In fact, in one restaurant, both of the dishes listed as "vegetarian" are served with ham.
Worse, the Spanish word for meat, carne, is often interpreted only to mean beef. This means that a dish ordered sin carne (without meat) could very well be served with ham, sausage or chicken. The biggest challenge for vegetarians is avoiding these types of misunderstandings.
Tyler considers the best defense to be a good offense. He always clearly states that he doesn't want any meat by checking off his list: no carne (meat), no pollo (chicken), no jamÃ³n (ham), no pescado (fish) and no mariscos (seafood). He says that this strategy always works well for him and that he rarely has any problems.
Tips for vegetarians thinking of coming to Argentina? Henderson and Weber offer the same advice. Don't believe the hype. Visitors don't have to be a carnivore to enjoy Argentina. Pack your bags, leave the tofu behind and get ready to enjoy some of the best food you've ever had.
In Buenos Aires:
For some of the freshest, richest Argentine foods with fantastic vegetarian options, go off the beaten path to the Las CanÌƒitas neighborhood where tourists are outnumbered by locals looking for authentic Argentine cuisine.
gourmet pizzas and pastas
neighborhood cafÃ© with a wide variety of empanadas