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Eating Kosher and Veggie Across South America: The Good, The Bland and The Ugly

This entry is cross-posted at marriedwithbackpacks.com

It’s now been seven weeks backpacking through this meat-lovers paradise, tough going for a pair of Jews spoiled by home cooking and New York’s great vegetarian restaurants. Vegetarian cuisine in Peru and Bolivia is, like their economies, ‘developing.’ We were pleasantly surprised at the number of vegetarian restaurants in Lima, Arequipa and Cusco. In many of them we had a set menu consisting of a soup, a main, tea and possibly desert for $1.50-$5. Now it could be that South American vegetarian cuisine is relatively immature, or did the Spaniards run off with all the Inca’s seasoning as well as their gold… because all most all of our Andean meals were quite bland. The vegetables or grain soups would have been enlivened by adding almost anything. The mains usually consisted of rice, eggs and glisteningly oily fried vegetables. Most of the vegetarian restaurants rely heavily on eggs and cheese, so if you are travelling vegan, it might end up being the rice and oily vegetables for meal after meal. If you risk eating at a non-vegetarian restaurant, the vegetarian menu usually consists of pizza and spaghetti. I should mention that it wasn’t all bad news, we did enjoy a veggie version of a traditional Arequipa dish (at a restaurant called Lakshmivan), a large pepper stuffed with vegetables, tofu and chillies, as well as scrumptious burritos at the Hearts Café in Ollantaytambo.

When it comes to snacks there is more to get excited about. Street vendors roast potatoes over coals, although unfortunately for us, always together with chunks of meat. At night, bands of mobile popcorn makers roam the streets providing a cheap and delicious snack, available salty or sweet. One can also find puffed Quinua and other Andean grains, available in small bags or pressed with honey into a type of granola bar. In the right hostel you can find a breakfast of yoghurt, sweet puffed grains and fresh papaya and bananas – delicious. When it comes to fruit, we didn’t try as many exotic varieties as I would have liked, but we did enjoy a juicy cherimoya in La Paz.

On one occasion our diet was supplemented by some wild protein. On a jungle trip in the Bolivian Amazon we were fishing for piranhas using hand reels when I was luckily enough to drag in a fish around a foot long. After checking for fins and scales, we decided it would be a welcome addition to what were some otherwise meager jungle rations. I killed the fish, a first for me, using the most readily available means, the oar of our canoe, and the fish was cooked up for lunch the following day.

Civil unrest in Bolivia led us to fly early to northern Argentina, where we traded charming street markets for expensive, industrialized supermarkets where everything contained corn syrup, beef fat or both. The cattle industry is so enormous that the excess fat makes its way into bread, crackers and other baked goods. Additionally, in many places vegetarian food is nowhere to be found, indeed one should not be surprised to have one’s vegetarianism openly mocked. In this region we did a fair bit of self catering, utilizing our pot to make pasta and tomato sauce.

Upon reaching Buenos Aires, home to around 100,000 Jews and some of the world’s best kosher restaurants, we joined in the gluttony of the locals. An upmarket sushi chain has a kosher branch where we paid through the nose for a roll featuring mango, salmon and fried cheese, and another featuring citrus marinated salmon. At the Al Galope restaurant we enjoyed a traditional Argentinian parilla, meat grilled over a wood fire. The steak, sausages, sweetbreads, meatballs and tripe were brought to our table on a mini grill with its own coals to keep it warm. The leftovers lasted two lunches but the meal itself was well, too meaty. It was tough to go straight into that much plain roasted unseasoned meat.

Now I don’t think I have ever ingested a McDonald’s hamburger in my life, but if you are in Buenos Aires and for some reason there is a kosher McDonalds, why not? OK, I can think of many reasons why not, but we went for what would be a first time and last time experience. My frustration began when the worker took minute after gratification delaying minute to put together our already prepared meal. This is supposed to be fast food! Then I almost threw a fit trying desperately to open their tiny ketchup packets, which cannot be opened with greasy fingers. The bun was soggy and the meat bland – I’m assuming this is standard – not an experience I’ll miss. If I can give them credit for something is that their prices appeared to be the same as the non-kosher McDonald’s. And of course, the sight of a frum woman standing in the middle of a McDonald’s kitchen checking lettuce for bugs is priceless.

The culinary highlight of our trip is a restaurant in Buenos Aires called Asian. After trying a few albeit delicious options we realized their pineapple, soy and ginger marinated steak ($22) is quite simply the best thing we can ever remember eating. Quality kosher wine is served by the bottle only, but for only $13 a bottle there is no fear in erring on the plentiful side. It was very expensive by Argentinean standards, but with quality and service that shamed anything we had experienced in the US, even at top dollar New York kosher restaurants. Argentineans eat ridiculously late, restaurants are usually packed at around 11pm, such that when we came at 8pm we had the whole place ourselves. A great way to finish off the first continent in our round-the-world trip. Bring on Australia.

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3 Responses to “Eating Kosher and Veggie Across South America: The Good, The Bland and The Ugly”

  1. Ariel Says:

    Fish eaters aren’t vegetarians. They are pescetarians.

  2. Jeremy Says:

    In La Paz, Bolivia the Hotel Gloria Restaurante Vegetariano is one of my all time favorites. I was a regular there in 1992-1993 and hear it is still excellent.

  3. Ben Says:

    My wife and I travelled through South America a year ago and had many of the same experiences. I loved the andino food, especially the soups. Also, the quinoa puff ‘granola’ was delicious and packed full of energy. We found many vegetarian options throughout South America, and sometimes when we thought there was no hope, there would be a Hari Krishna restaurant in some random city offering up some wonderful vegetarian cuisine.

    Now, I must say that Buenos Aires was amazing for someone who keeps Kosher, but never has the opportunity to eat out so much. I was amazed to order a steak and I received two! And of course, no sides. And I will agree with you, when we went out ot eat at 10 PM, we were the only ones there.

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