Published in The Real Argentina, Sept 2010: http://www.therealargentina.com/ceviche-puertas-cerradas-barrio-chino-in-buenos-aires-argentina-food/
I have a spice vice, a chilli fetish. I like it hot.
And we’re talking serious heat – no pussying around with a korma. I scissor skinny bird’s-eye chillies raw into salad. I’ve been designing a twisting chilli tattoo for 7 years. At home in London, I had my own windowsill pepper plants and lovingly nurtured Alfonso the Tabasco, Guillermo the Habanero and the Scotch Bonnet, Hamish – until I came home drunk one night and ate them. I met my first boyfriend at a vindaloo-eating competition. I carry emergency Tabasco bottles in my bag. Pals wouldn’t dare go anywhere without bringing me back exotic hot sauces (my favourite being the Ass Blaster from Louisiana). And I wanted to call my first child Pepper – until I found out it’s the name of a cartoon pig. I am hoping by the time I do have one (child, not pig), Peppa is extinct, like Tinky Winky, the handbag-holding Teletubby.
So, you get it, I like it hot. I get off on those teeny-weeny chilli peppers which send the brain a message to release endorphins, increasing your heart rate, circulation, sweating and euphoria – all similar to how your body reacts during sex (maybe why I eat so many – shame). Then what the hell am I doing living in the culinary equivalent of a ‘fluffer’, who promises so much heat, but doesn’t finish off the job? If you’ve come to Argentina under the illusion you’re in for a heat sensation of the oral variety, then you’re wrong. No warm reception here.
The Argentines cannot take the tongue-tingle. They might act like they’re OD-ing on something hot they’ve mainlined earlier, but they can’t handle the stuff. For a country known for being so fiery in temperament, this lack of food tolerance can be shocking news to travellers. We’re really not far from Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, and even Mexico, yet Argentines even shy away from ‘pimienta negra’. Generally, the only national spice is in the Malbec (the ultimate irony being that the local Malbec and Torrontes go well with spicy food). But do not fear, chilli aficionados, I’ve done a recce of Buenos Aires for you. When it comes to the hot stuff, like Harold and Kumar, if I get the munchies I will go above and beyond in my quest.
You too can live out your spicy fantasy here, because ‘picante’ does exist. You just need to know how to sniff it out.
WHY DO CHILLI-LOVERS ALWAYS WANT MORE? Phillip Scoville (ok, bad gag) explains why people who eat lots of chilli can develop a higher threshold for spicy foods. “Basically, if you like hot foods you’re a masochist.”
What do I look like, a MEXICAN?
FABRICA DEL TACO, Palermo (Gorriti 5062) – Mmmargaritas and three hot sauces labelled “for porteños only”, “spicy” and “for those who dare”. However, I’ll let you in on a secret… Actually, it has 4 or 5. The secret 2 you get if you mention you’re Mexican or Pakistani or say something in Spanish like “I’m not from here, I know spice, give me something fucking spicy, por favor”.
LUPITA, Las Cañitas (Báez 227) – The only place I can stand in the polo player and American expat mecca that is Las Cañitas. Great salty Margaritas, spicy burritos and enchilladas. Go for the pork or lamb for something a bit different. Beware, it’s not cheap, but it’s all about the hot sauces.
FRIDA KHALO, Núñez (Ciudad de la Paz 3093). Known for their spicy mole, mole, moles. The enchiladas can be too spicy for some. Yes you heard me right, too spicy here in Buenos Aires. Rumour has it, the food will put hairs on your mono-brow (bad gag, apologies).
Is that BARRIO CHINO in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?
Buenos Aires’ teeny-tiny Chinatown is in Belgrano at the intersection of Arribeños and Juramento. It runs for a few blocks. But hey, it’s not all about size.
ASIA ORIENTAL SUPERMARKET (Mendoza 1677) – Shop for your spices, then grab a soup from the small eating area in the back – and add chillies to taste. Great hangover food, but not if you’re feeling queasy – the entrance stinks of fish. You might barf on the first hurdle before you’ve even had the curative food.
HONG KONG STYLE (Montañeses 2149) – Order one of each of the dim sum, a hot and sour soup and ask for the spicy sauce. Last lunch orders at 3:30pm.
Perfect chilli anti-dote: My new favourite discovery – melon ice-lollies (popsicles for the Americans). Buy from any of the counters selling chicken and battered prawn skewers. Seriously cooling and only AR$3.
SOLO PESCADO, Almagro/Abasto (Anchorena 533). Order the mixed ceviche ‘lenguado’ (sole). This has the best texture – with squid, prawns and mussels thrown in. Smother with salsa verde. Weep. Warning: ask for reduced onions if you want to attract the use your mouth for anything other than eating in the next 48 hours. Ask for a magnet on your way out. It’s in the shape of a fish. Awesome.
CHAN CHAN, Centro (Hipólito Yrigoyen 1390) – more upmarket and hipster-tastic. Prepare to queue if late/ weekend, then get on the frozen Pisco Sours to make up for lost time outside.
COCINA SUNAE – The first pan-Asian ‘puerta cerrada’ (closed door restaurant) in Buenos Aires. Fiery curries and sexy spicy and sour soup. NYC/Hong Kong’s Christina brings sliced chilli to table on request. Check the website for the menu which changes every two weeks.
GREEN BAMBOO, Palermo (Costa Rica 5802) – Good Vietnamese-Thai. They ask you how hot you want it, from one to three. Ask for a six.
BANGALORE PUB & CURRY HOUSE, Palermo (Humboldt 1416) – The curry is good, (look, it’s not India), but it’s all about the house hot sauce. Plus, there’s happy hour and beer.
GIBRALTAR, San Telmo (Perú 895) – As much as it pains me to recommend an English-style pub, their Thai Green and Jungle Beef curries are damn hot – and you can get on the beer too.
TANDOOR, Barrio Norte (Laprida 1293) – A high-end option. You can have anything spiced to taste. Plus, a hot sauce that is so hot that it almost hurts.
SUDESTADA, Palermo Hollywood (Guatemala 5602) – Ask for your soup or stir fries extra hot. Go for lunch for good meal deals. If you get the heavily tattooed waiter, see if you can work out what he did time for. Excellent sleeves. I digress.
When in Rome (well, Buenos Aires) douse yourself in CHIMICHURRI
If all the above feels a bit ‘wrong’ and you’re a more into ‘immersing with the culture, yah’, eating like the locals, then whack a load of ‘salsa criolla’ and ‘chimichurri’ (chopped parsley, garlic, oil, vinegar and peppers) on your choripan, bondiola or whopping great lump of cow. They vary in strength, tang and sweetness (never bother with supermarket ones). My favourite is served at Palermo’s Matarife Restaurant (Fitz Roy 2110) and not only because they give me tupperware-loads to take away and I add olive oil to it at home to eek it out between trips. Classy.
Variety is the spice of life, but I prefer CHILLIES
If you want to cook a fiery feast at home, then ingredient sourcing is easier than you think. Native to the altiplano is the hot ‘rocoto’, or ‘locoto’ pepper.
For chillies, cumbia music and chaos, check out BARRIO DE LINIERS’ Bolivian Mercado – Basically ‘Bolitown’. Beware, though, as it tends to be extremely busy, so keep your wits about you.
Peruvano and Bolivian STREET VENDORS – These ladies sit on corners and have the hottest skinny chillies at the best prices. I go to the Peruvian lady near Abasto shopping mall for aji picantes chicos, huge ginger roots and salsa verde in little plastic baggies.
SUPERMARKETS – Jumbos and Discos sporadically stock jalapenos and imported hot sauces – they are quite pricey, though. Instead of Tabasco, experiment with local makes – some are woefully weak, but Louisiana Gold can be a good substitute and 1/10 of the price (though I’m not sure it has ever set foot in Louisiana).
JUEVES A LA MESA – I never thought I’d say it, but it’s good to eat plants. Buena Onda’s Meghan opens her San Telmo apartment every Thursday (the clue is in the name), serving hearty salads, homemade bread, spicy main dishes and desserts including homemade chocolate. Plus she sends you off with recipes and food sources. AR$75. BYO. When I went the squash curry was one of the best things had tasted here for ages. We wept, and not just from the spice. Rumour has it she’s working on her own chilli chocolate. http://juevesalamesa.wordpress.com/