If you happen to be in Uruguay and are a meat lover, you should not miss trying the asado (Uruguayan signature dish). It is different from other versions throughout The Americas, although those differences can be subtle.
Uruguay is proud of the quality of its beef, and exports to the US and the rest of the world are on the rise. Much of the cattle raised for beef in Uruguay descend from the British Hereford and the Aberdeen Angus breeds.
One of the most popular places to try Uruguayan asado is the “Mercado del Puerto”, in Montevideo. It is a historic place, well prepared for tourists and business travelers. They offer a variety of typical Uruguayan dishes, including some of the most extravagant ones the country has to offer.
Some facts about Mercado del Puerto
It is located in the oldest part of the city, known as “Ciudad Vieja”. You can go there using public transportation. However, if you are not used to the city, you probably would like to take a taxi or the tourist bus.
In its origins, Mercado del Puerto was the wholesale produce and meat market of Montevideo’s seaport. Built out of steel, it was an architectural novelty in South America when it opened in 1868. In more recent years, the site has been renovated to accommodate multiple small restaurants and retail tenants. There is an outside walkway, where more shops and some local artists can often be found. Alvaro Saralegui, a prominent local watercolor artist, is usually on Saturdays displaying his work. It is common to find guitarists, singers and tango dancers performing on any given day.
“It is a ‘must see’ place to visit in Montevideo”, says Susana Gonzalez, Marketing Manager of Arapey Thermal Resort and Spa. Indeed, several notable visitors had been there. From Enrico Caruso and Carlos Gardel, to former President George W. Bush and King Juan Carlos of Spain, Mercado del Puerto had received many prominent guests to Uruguay.
Asado, The Uruguayan signature dish
Uruguay is big on beef (the country is among the top 10 global consumers per capita), and asado is the local specialty. It is prepared from the cut on the cattle below the ribs, called Flank or Skirt Steak in the US, Falda or Sobrebarriga in parts of Latin America. (The name fajita for the Mexican dish many North Americans already know means “little girdle” from the word “faja” – made from the same cut of meat) cooked using homemade coal from recently burned wood, distinct from the commercial charcoal, which is common in Argentina.
The Uruguayan asado is made on a “parrilla:”a grill (where the food is cooked) and an iron stand where the wood is burned. In past, it was prepared directly in the ground. Although the system has been modernized and sanitized somewhat, it is still quite rudimentary. “The parrilla is what gives the meat that special flavor, and it depends deeply on the skills of the asador (the person who cooks the asado)”, says Gonzalez.
Other dishes to try
A novice in Uruguayan cuisine might also find these other dishes prepared on the parrilla tasty. This first list isn’t too adventurous and anyone can enjoy:
Chorizo: made from pork and beef, it is Uruguay’s on contribution to the world of charcuterie. Uruguayan chorizo is distinct from the chorizo (sausage) of other countries. It is often consumed as a side dish with an asado, as it’s own entrée, or offered as an appetizer.
Baked potatoes: The whole potato is cooked in the parrilla, and flavored with butter, blue cheese and/or garlic.
Pamplona: Rolls of grilled stuffed meat made from pork or chicken. Usually served as a main dish.
Provolone cheese: It is prepared with herbs and over a steel plate in the parrilla. It is served with bread, and is great for sharing as an appetizer.
There are other options, for the more adventurous palate. Some of them are:
Morcilla: A dark brown or black sausage, made from pork and beef blood. In Uruguay, it comes in both sweet and savory varieties so you need to indicate your preference to the waiter.
Chinchulin: A prepared cattle intestine cooked on the parrilla. It is common to eat it flavored with lots of lemon juice and salt.
Molleja: The cattle thymus gland is one of the most favored delicacies to the Uruguayan gourmand. Many like to garnish it with limes.
Kidney: This beef offal is often served as a side dish for an asado.
Mercado del Puerto also features other carnivorous dishes: rabbit, lamb, jabalí (wild boar) and capybara (similar to a North American nutria, the world’s largest rodent) are on the menu. Of course, chicken, pork and fish are always available.
When you happen to be in Montevideo, Mercado Del Puerto is a good place to visit and discover what Uruguayan cuisine has to offer. It is a nice place to share with friends, the family, or of course, business colleagues.
All photos: Leonel More