About three weeks ago, I came to the conclusion that I had to leave the city. It was beginning to suffocate me. I chronically suffer from cabin fever, and this time, I craved endless land and beautiful landscapes. I drew up a rough itinerary that would take me through the mountainous provinces of Tucumán, Salta and Jujuy. My plan was to keep moving on up—in terms of both direction and altitude. And, I was really looking forward to tasting the famous empanadas salteñas.
I happily noticed that northern Argentina certainly offers a gastronomic exoticism that is missed in Buenos Aires. While pizza, pasta and asado still abound, the cuisine reflects native cultural and geographic influences, and comprises a greater variety of condiments, produce and meats. Onions, garlic, chili peppers, cumin and pepper spice up the dishes. Llama, goat, and lamb meat populate the menus. And cane sugar, cayote, cuaresmilla, squash and cheese dominate the desserts. Quinoa, goat cheese and corn also make surprising appearances. Dishes are hot, stew-y and juicy. And they have names like locro, humita, and tamal. To my unimaginable glee, homemade hot sauce accompanies the plates—an analogous icing on the cake.
I arrived in Tucumán after a 16-hour bus ride from the hectic Retiro bus station. A small city with a dappling of colonial mansions, the capital San Miguel de Tucumán served as a good starting point in my journey. Here, I first learned of the region’s affinity for goat cheese, which I munched on in various instances throughout my trip. After a leisurely stroll that led me through the quaint and charming Paseo de la Independencia, I found myself at the parrilla and brewery, A La Vuelta de la Historia. I had my first ever goat cheese empanada, piping hot from the oven and oozing with stringy, melted cheese. My cold and fresh-squeezed kiwi smoothie made the perfect complement, and I sipped away as my waiter, Alejandro Piazzano, carefully explained the process of brewing the house Künstner beer. (All the working machinery was interpolated within the dining premises, and I had been sitting next to a fermentation tank—Step 4 in the process.) Several locals had also extolled the empanadas at the tiny eatery, El Portal, but it had closed for Independence Day.
On my stops through Tucumán on my way to Salta—Mollar, Tafí del Valle, Amaicha del Valle, and the Ruinas de Quilmes—I noted other differences with respect to the empanadas. The beef empanadas in Tucumán, unlike their counterparts in Buenos Aires, are filled with juicy chunks of chopped beef as opposed to ground beef, and include paprika, onions, chives, and sliced hard boiled eggs. You are also given the option of mild or spicy. With a penchant for spice, (as in almost all aspects of my life), I would order the latter, and lob additional hot sauce on top before each bite. I personally find the contrast in temperature (hot vs. lukewarm), consistency (solid vs. saucy) and ingredients (meat and bread vs. vegetable) between the empanada and the chili sauce quite appetizing. I also observed the distinct tucumán style of eating empanadas. After biting off one tip, the locals would squeeze a few drops of lime juice into the empanada before each mouthful, creating a moister, tangier flavor.
Locro, a thick, hearty stew usually served only on Patriot’s Day on May 25th, constitutes another regular custom in the north. With a name stemming from the Inca’s Quechua language and roots predating Spanish colonialism, locro is considered the most typical Argentine dish. Ingredients include corn (ground and whole grain), white beans, squash, pumpkin, onion, various beef pieces including tripe, chorizo, bacon and pieces of hard boiled egg. Hot chili sauce is usually drizzled on top. Locro is especially good during the cold winter nights along the Andes mountain range as it fills and warms you up quite nicely.
As for a sweet end to tie up the meal, I tasted dulce de cuaresmilla, miniature peaches in a very sweet syrup. Also sold in many artesanal food stands, they make a great souvenir.
In between making my culinary discoveries in Tucumán, I enjoyed a private tour of the historic Jockey Club building in the city, hiked up the pre-Incan ruins of Quilmes, and relished a spontaneous motorcycle ride around Amaicha (along with free pizza and beer that the kiosco owner offered me) before ending up back on a bus to continue my travels upwards.
Next stop: Cafayate in the Salta province…
A La Vuelta de la Historia
Crisóstomo Alvarez 456, San Miguel de Tucumán
381 497 5597
Calle 24 de Septiembre 351, San Miguel de Tucumán
381 421 5367