Although this is over a month after the event and I’ve already blogged about the trip itself on my site, I have to say something specifically about the food in Tucumán, as we enjoyed so much good stuff there. I’ll start with the non-empanada stuff. Oh, and a warning. I’m in a bit of a rush, so I’m only going to link pictures instead of including. Sorry.
Tucumán is home to part of the Arab influx from however many years ago, and it is reflected a bit in the food. They have these open-faced empanadas (oops, there goes my promise) called sfijas that are baked with a small hole in the top. They’re a little different and quite tasty.
Of course, Tucumán has all of the delicious northern Argentine dishes we had heard about and drooled over. Humitas (egg and corn wrapped in corn husk and boiled, generally) were one (Chris loves these), and they did not disappoint. Tamales (corn and meat, again cooked in a husk) are very common up there and like any regional food, quality can vary. Actually, one of my favourites was sampled at the empanada festival – who would’ve guessed? There were many caña-based treats (cane sugar is big in the region) and we tried as many of these as we could – alfajores with cane sugar cream in the middle instead of dulce de leche (these were really nice) and cane sugar candies (they have a specific name, but I can’t recall it) which went down really nice. There is also a cane sugar alcohol simply called caña, but we didn’t get to try this. This time. Lastly, locro, a kind of bean stew with various pieces of meat (it used to be, and still sometimes is, supposed to be made up of the meat that is left over after other dishes have been cooked – organ meats and such. The locro was served with chili oil on it for a little added spice, another bonus of food up here.
For desserts, we tried various fruits in syrup, apparently a specialty up here. Lemons, figs, squash, and one other fruit that I can’t recall were all sampled. Personally, I loved the squash, though the lemons were an interesting taste. We also searched high and low for a recommeded dessert called quesillo en miel de caña (cheese in cane sugar honey). To be honest, when we found it, I thought it was a bit of a disappointment, though I still enjoyed it. Slices of plain white cheese drizzled with cane sugar and topped with nuts, it didn’t have as much contrast in taste as I had wanted. Still, it was worth trying.
A quick word about the non-Argentine food we found. There were two places about three doors down from each other selling the exact same thing – gourmet hot dogs. The dogs themselves were nothing special, but they came with the choice of about two dozen ingredients to put on top of them – everything from spicy mustard to grilled onions and peppers to hummus. You could buy a 6-incher or a foot-long, and I have to say it was the best hot dog I’ve ever eaten (due to ingredients). If you’re in Tucumán, these places are absolutely worth checking out.
Chris and I also bought a bottle of wine to take back (though we found it at home, the joke was on us) to Buenos Aires – a Cabernet Sauvingnon grown in Cafayate, the mountainous region of the province. A client of mine told me that the high altitudes where the grapes are grown alter the taste of the wine and he was absolutely right. I’m a bad food reviewer, as I can’t describe the taste of the wine, but I can tell you that it is different from any other wine I’ve had and is worth a try. In fact, that is the one bottle we brought back for everyone to try, as it would be quite difficult to get anywhere else.
Alright, that takes us up to the empanada festival. First, though, a word about empanadas here. Empandas tucumanas are famous all over the country, one reason being is that they are prepared a cuchillo (chopped meat instead of ground beef). Also, when eaten, one takes a bite off the end, then takes a slice of lemon and squeezes it into the empanada. I have to say, both of these are great ways to eat empanadas and I plan on doing both as much as possible.
Anyway, at the festival, there were, um, restaurants selling empanadas everywhere called rancheros. Some have sponsered past contest winners and make this fact well-known. We tried empanadas (all meat) of very different quality in many different ways, trying to prepare ourselves for what was coming. Dough (called maza) was different, different spices created different flavours, fillings were of different juiciness – all different factors that created totally different empanadas. Beer and sangria were also plentiful – Chris bought a litre of sangria for about 7 pesos. Amazing. Photographers, unfortunately, have to keep a steady hand.
As to the competition itself, it was very interesting walking about, checking out everyone’s technique and ingredients. I couldn’t believe the range of empanadas created with the exact same ingredients, especially in the taste tests. Some mazas were more buttery, some were heavier, some were perfect. The filling varied widely – some contestants cooked their green onions, others didn’t; there was a wide range of spice amounts (I didn’t really like the salty empandas as much, though I know one judge complained that one that I liked wasn’t salty enough); juiciness varied a lot. Chris and Layne judged and found it a tough job at times.
As I’m already approaching 1000 words, I’m going to cut it here and tell you to go look at the pictures of both the time in Tucumán and the empanada festival in Famaillá. Hopefully one of them will equal this essay. Needless to say, we’ll be checking out empanadas wherever we go to find where the best ones are made. Tough job, I know, but someone has to do it.