Citizens of the Southern Cone, especially Argentines, are renowned as carnivores. According to a recent article in The Economist, though, the Argentine diet is changing so that vegetarianism is no longer an eccentricity. Consistent with its market-oriented economic determinism, The Economist attributes this primarily to beef shortages and rising prices, noting that per person consumption will fall from 68 kilos in 2008 to 57 kilos in 2009. At the same time, it acknowledges some Argentines’ concerns about the impact of high beef consumption on personal health.
To tell the truth, this take on vegetarianism in the region is more than a little behind the curve. Even in 1976 - a time when tourists to the Southern Cone countries were relatively few - the venerable South American Handbook counseled visitors to “Eat plenty of salads; they’re safe in Argentina, and good.”
In reality, despite Argentina’s reputation for elevated beef consumption, it’s probably the easiest Southern Cone country in which to be a vegetarian. While beef has long been a staple, vegetarian buffet restaurants have been abundant in Buenos Aires since the 1980s, even if their quality was only so-so for the most part. There were exceptions, such as Palermo Soho’s established La Esquina de las Flores, and there are even more today, such Palermo Hollywood’s organic Bío Restaurant, both of them cited in The Economist article.
Even at non-vegetarian restaurants, though, vegetarian items such as pastas and savory pies - chard pie is a standard in many Argentine households - are genuine options. Still, diners need to be alert to the sauces - especially since Argentines often use the term carne (meat) to refer to beef. Chicken, pork, and the like are something else - often referred to as carnes blancas (white meats).
If it’s not that hard to be vegetarian in terms of access to the proper food, it can be more difficult in social terms. The asado, or mixed-grill barbecue, is not only a staple of the Argentine diet, but also a custom to which there is enormous pressure to conform. Anyone who goes to a gathering of family or friends and declines to eat beef can still become something of an outcast. For that reason, more than a few Argentine vegetarians have returned to their carnivorous roots - or at least decided to go along with the group on such social occasions.
In reality, it’s probably harder to be a vegetarian in Uruguay or Chile - especially in rural Chile - than it is in Argentina. That said, it’s not usually a problem if you’re on a guided tour or if you can explain your dietary preferences to the waiter or cook in question (it may be easier to simply plead alergia - allergy - if your language skills are not up to the task). That said, the Santiago restaurant El Huerto may well be the continent’s top vegetarian option, even if first-rate meatless meals are harder to find outside Chile’s capital.