May 23, 2013
Food for thoughtSunday, March 3, 2013
What is criollo in the kitchen?
By Dereck Foster
For the Herald
The other day, more by chance than by choice, I happened to catch a TV programme which included an interview with a local stage luminary who seems to be very much in the limelight these days. During the show she mentioned that her hobby was cooking. Indeed? What type of cooking? Argentine cooking. And how did she define Argentina in the kitchen? Cocina criolla, of course.
At this point I switched off, but a doubt remained in my mind: what, indeed, does cocina criolla imply? According to the dictionaries I consulted, criollo and “creole” are the Spanish and English equivalents of the same thing. My Oxford Dictionary defines “creole” as “descended from Europeans” (later to include black people). This origin is also extended to the Spanish criollo, and thus tells us that our criollo cuisine is that which our European ancestors imported from Europe – Spain to begin with, and later Italy – and attached to what local cuisine they discovered on arrival. And what, pray, was this local gastronomy composed of?
If we exclude much of the northwestern region of modern Argentina, and include a touch of the northeast, we must come to the conclusion that the first settlers had very little upon which to construct any sort of cuisine. Even in the north what was available – basically potato and maize – was of little use because of the exotic nature of these two basic foods. Little use was made of the more than 400 species of potato that were being cultivated in –for example– the Quebrada de Humahuaca, or of the six or seven varieties of maize also cultivated in this same region.
(It is usual to attribute the cultivation and popularization of maize to Mexico, but it has been proved that 300 years before Mexico discovered maize this grain was already known, and used, in what is now the province of Jujuy. For some reason of their own Spaniards refused to accept maize as a civilized food, and even today they distrust it to the point that they do not add it to their cocido – a major difference between that dish and our puchero).
Pick up any guide to local restaurants and you will find that the different categories of menu are almost infinite: French, Italian, Chinese, Peruvian, Spanish, Mexican Mediterranean, Basque and infinite combinations between each one fill pages. Yet, try and find one categorized as Crio-lla and you are lucky to come up with a couple at best. Criolla does not exist, or so it seems. However, we must look a little closer to get a clearer picture.
Cecilia de Imperio, who is active in the Utilísima cable channel (and elsewhere), is probably the person who best understands what criollo cuisine is all about. She divides the country into four almost separate regions: the North, which is spicy and strongly based on local elements and customs; the South, which is less varied and dependent mostly on mutton and regional specialties, such as that provided by the Welsh settlers; the Litoral, which reflects a strong Guaraní influence; and Buenos Aires city, which is strongly cosmopolitan and hides whatever criollo influences it may have behind a curtain of indifference.
This is pretty much an accurate picture of what we can call crio-llo cuisine today, which (as Cecilia de Imperio says) has been modified by modern tastes and trends as much as any other cuisine. This is not to say that cocina criolla is largely limited to the Argentine provinces and excluded from its capital. The provinces offer as many good and top restaurants as does BA, but while in BA these restaurants are all lumped together into one large and mostly homogenous unit, elsewhere in Argentina alternatives are spread wider out so that, while top restaurants receive their due, they are one of a crowd, neither blanketing their competition or being blanketed in their turn.
A major task is that of deciding what, indeed, deserves to be considered modern and what is traditional, assuming traditional to defining what we consider crio-llo. There is little problem in assigning a puchero to its rightful place, but how do we consider a milanesa a la Napoli? The milanesa is fairly modern in its concept and includes French, Italian and Viennese traits in its DNA, but the a la Napoli variation is very recent and truly a local creation. Hardly a true criollo candidate, but it pops up as such in various locally compiled and printed criollo cookery books. Here, I am afraid, my friend Cecilia de Imperio slips up: she includes both milanesas and their napolitana (sic) variation in the criolla column.
Placing popular dishes in their correct column is not only a complicated matter, but it also implies a great deal of personal preference. Objectivity is not easy to apply, as a quick glance through several cocina criolla books demonstrate. Some include Revuelto Gramajo as a criollo dish, which is hard to justify considering that this delicious but sadly ill-treated creation was born roughly at the same time as yours truly. Dulce de leche has a stronger argument in its favour, but falls short of true originality, sharing as it does its identity with all South and Central American nations save the Guianas and Brazil.
The selection of typical cocina criolla food in different books gives one a fairly clear idea of what criollo cooking is all about. One of the most complete books fails to include such typical specialities as chimichurri, carbonada, locro (!), chatasca and mondongo, all of which are far more akin to the beginnings of local cuisine than milanesas. But we cannot criticize our locals when we find that abroad the meaning of creole is also a matter of discussion. My Cordon Bleu dictionary informs me that “creole” identifies a piece of meat or chicken garnished with tomatoes and peppers like a pilaf. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Culinary Terms defines “à la creole” as a dish inspired by the West Indian style of cooking, usually including rice, red peppers and tomatoes. Without “à la,” creole identifies a style of cooking which involves West Indian, French, African and Spanish influences.
So, after all this, what do we mean when we say cocina criolla? The answer is up to you. There is no rule that seems to remotely indicate along which road we should proceed, except that which fits your own personal taste and opinion best. Let us continue talking about French, Spanish, Japanese of Chinese cuisine with whatever authority we care to assume. But when someone asks us what cocina criolla is, we will have to say “Take your pick.” It is whatever the cook du jour cares to prepare that day.