Musings

My Self-Imposed Torture

On being a vegetarian in Argentina

Article by Mer Fagliano


It is widely known that when people go to college, they change a lot. Some people use this time to experiment and play around with their personalities. As a result, some students become more politically active or dedicated to community service. College, for me, changed the most dominant part of my “food personality”.

As an Argentine, I was born and raised around a food culture that is heavily, if not uniquely, oriented towards meat. Literally everything that we eat for lunch and dinner has some form of meat in it. Asado, milanesas, empanadas and tartas are some of the most popular dishes in Argentina. They are also, in most cases, prepared with meat. Asado is basically a barbecue. Milanesas are mainly made of beef, chicken or fish. The most consumed, and therefore sold, empanada styles are made of either meat or ham. Tartas can be more varied, with flavors ranging more pumpkin and cheese to spinach. However, a great number of them are still made of ham and cheese.

I never complained about my food culture. It was awesome. I love every single one of those dishes. Honestly, if you have not tried a full Argentine-style asado, you are missing out of life. And before you think “oh I have had several American barbecues, it’s basically the same”, I must tell you, it is nothing like it. First of all, the cuts of the meat and the quality of it is completely different. I have yet to hear someone say that American meat has a better quality than Brazilian or Argentine meat. Besides, the way of cooking it, and therefore the result, is better. There are few things as enjoyable as a well-prepared asado. You can imagine how, if you have asado almost every weekend, like a lot of Argentine families do, it is easy to get obsessed.

When I arrived to the US, the first thing that I realized is that the meat is not as good. Do not get me wrong, chicken here is pretty good and there are a thousand delicious ways of cooking fish, but beef is not there yet. Because of that, I unconsciously started to eat less and less beef. After a few weeks, the only form of meat that I was having was chicken, since fish is quite expensive. A year later, I even grew tired of chicken. Outside from an occasional burger or ramen with duck or pork, I was a vegetarian. You are probably thinking: How did you get tired of chicken in one year but not of asado in 19 years? Trust me, you cannot get tired of asado. When I stopped having meat, I based my diet on quinoa, pasta, salads, stir-fries and sandwiches. My problem was that everytime I had meat, my body would not react well to it. The details are not pleasant, so I will let them to your imagination. Overall, it was not a good experience. Several failed attempts later, I took the decision of officially becoming a vegetarian.

Being a vegetarian in the US is easy. Every restaurant has at least one vegetarian option, without counting salads. Besides, there are several supermarkets and grocery stores with a great number of alternative sources of protein. Tofu is somewhat easy to get here. If you do not like tofu, you can also get veggie chicken, veggie burgers, veggie meatballs, etc. You have a lot of options. What is more important, is that these options are, at least for me, on the accessible price range. Despite being more expensive than other sources of protein, vegetarian sources are not that expensive that I find myself incapable of buying them.  Because of all the options available, I never felt tempted to go back to eating meat or require to do so to stay on budget.

My problem came along with winter break. As many students, I decided to spend the holidays back home with my friends and family. It was as bad as I expected. Most of my extended family members and friends were not aware of my decision and did not feel bad expressing shock. They passed questions like: why do you do it? How can you do this? Does this mean that you are going to try to convince us to be vegetarian too? Are we going to have to cook a separate dish for you now? And the one that annoyed me the most: Don’t you miss meat?

People are not the only ones not prepared for such a situation. Restaurants, unless they are specifically vegan or vegetarian, are not usually sensitive to vegetarians. If you ask if there is anything vegetarian the waiter will grab a copy of the menu and say: Oh, we have this great salad. Once in a while you also get the clarification of: wait not that one, that one has chicken. There were some restaurants in which having a vegetarian salad implied so many clarifications to the waitress that I felt like the stereotypical girl, with a high voice, asking for a non-fat, no-sugar, no-caffeine, no-calories drink. Supermarkets did not make the quest for food any easier. We went to three different big-chain grocery stores before we could find tofu. And that was all we could find. Veggie burgers? Veggie chicken? Forget them, there is no such thing. What we did have were milanesas de soja. This is soy, dipped in breadcrumbs and fried or baked. Contrary to what many people say, they are delicious and filling. What is the problem with them? For starters, I cannot live of them for two full weeks. Aside from that, they are rather expensive, with one normal pack of 4 milanesas costing up to $100 (Argentine peso). Therefore, my meals during the week were salads with tofu, and occasional vegetarian milanesas.

But what was even worse was what the rest of my group was having. They are not vegetarian. Why would they want a salad? Instead, they ordered parrilla (aka asado) or milanesas. I do not think I have ever expressed as much self-control and discipline as in those dinners. Do you know how hard it is for someone that loves meat as much as me to sit in a same table with amazingly smelling asados or incredibly looking milanesas and not eat them? It was hell. More so considering that, I WAS HAVING SALADS. There I was, eating a piece of spinach while my best friend was cutting her slightly-burned-on-the-outside-but-perfectly-red-on-the-inside beef. Torture.

Those two weeks in Argentina were definitely not easy. I do not think I can ever go back to eating only salads for two weeks. I certainly do not know what I am going to do the next time I go back. Meanwhile, I will continue happily surviving in the American food culture. Expect updates.