Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Passing (on) the Salt?


Most people, especially overseas travelers, appreciate that excessive consumption of red meat is a health hazard, especially for those at risk of heart disease. Still, in the Southern Cone countries of Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, where beef products dominate the traditional diet and the quality is often high, it’s hard to resist the temptation of a succulent bife de chorizo (roughly comparable to a porterhouse).
That said, Argentines and their neighbors are increasingly diet-conscious, and many are reducing their beef consumption in the interest of health. If you’re on a two-week Argentine holiday, and intend to enjoy the best the Pampas have to offer, this may not be a major issue, presuming you return home to a more balanced diet.

Beef, though, isn’t the only issue. For decades, at family asados (barbecues) in Argentina, I’ve seen the cook cover the meat in so much salt that it looked like snow (OK, that’s hyperbole, but you get the idea). My friend Dan Perlman, who runs the ironically named Casa SaltShaker restaurant out of his Recoleta apartment, does not provide salt at the table unless his guests specifically request it: “I see here, time and again, people who don't even taste their food, who will actually take the top off the saltshaker and pour the salt over the food so it looks like snow-capped peaks.” Most of his patrons are foreigners, but Argentines are not uncommon.

That’s why it surprised me to read recently, in the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, that Buenos Aires province (whose beaches are the No. 1 vacation destination for city residents) will prohibit the presence of salt shakers on restaurant tables this summer – unless, of course, diners ask for them. This is specifically for public health reasons, given salt’s contribution to high blood pressure; according to provincial statistics, 3.7 million of the province’s roughly 15.6 million inhabitants suffer from hypertension, and half of them ignore the issue.

Dan, for his part, is skeptical about the measure’s effectiveness: “I doubt those people will make any changes in the way they eat. And this whole no saltshakers on the table thing has been in play for three years now. Each summer they've made a big announcement that it's going into effect, and each summer it never does. I'm not holding my breath.”

Having suffered from cardiac problems myself, I have fortunately avoided hypertension issues, and I don’t particularly care for salt. I spend much more time in the capital than in the province, but I do find it encouraging that city restaurants no longer flinch when I ask them to prepare a meat dish without salt while, just a few years ago, they might have looked at me as if I had just arrived from Mars. Eschewing salt is still a little unusual in the Argentine provinces, Uruguay, and Chile, however.

Interestingly, in the Falkland Islands, beef per se is a relatively minor issue, because the overwhelming percentage of grazing animals are sheep – when I lived in the Islands for a year plus, in 1986-7, we were only able to obtain beef in the winter months, when they were slaughtered on the outer islands and shipped to Stanley by coastal freighter – tied to the deck by ropes in winter temperatures, the meat kept well until it arrived to town.
At that time, on the Islands, there was insufficient freezing capacity to maintain beef through the summer, while sheep – primarily raised for wool – were so abundant that they would normally be slaughtered and consumed on the same day or soon thereafter. For most of the year, mutton is still the main source of animal protein – lambs and other young sheep are simply too valuable for their wool.

Another note of dietary caution: In the Southern Cone countries, carne (commonly translated as “meat”) means beef – pork, chicken, lamb and the like are something else, commonly described as carne blanca (“white meat”). Unless they are careful, monolingual vegetarians who warn the waiter that they do not eat carne could well wind up with another sort of animal product on their plate.

2 comments:

  1. Agreed! I ordered a steak in a market in Mendoza and was surprised at the saltiness, and I'm someone who enjoys very salty food by North American standards.

    Is this typically a difference between higher end and lower end places? A more high end spot in Buenos Aires served something I was more accustomed to.

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  2. I think that is likely the case. If you're having a choripán from a food cart along the Costanera, expect it to be salty. If you're at a top-end parrilla in Puerto Madero, they are likely to be more health-conscious, though many Argentines will still prefer plenty of salt.

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