“Ying Yang Safari”

Note: This story was originally written in 1998 when Argentina and most of the rest of us weren’t so gastronomically sophisticated as we are today. I am sure Argentina has changed and I know for certain America has. We eat with sophisticated palates, we drink fine wines, our coffee no longer comes from a tin can, and we seek out strange, new, exotic ingredients that are making permanent homes on the shelves at our neighborhood Safeway [or Winn-Dixie, Kroger, Publix, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, etc.] So read the following with a grain of salt….hand-harvested sel gris, perhaps? – RL

“Épicerie chinoise”

As I have told many of you, our Argentine restaurant options of beef, pasta or pizza get pretty tiresome. Don’t get me wrong – the food here is very good – it is just that the creativity from restaurant to restaurant is pretty limited. I imagine this is a reflection of the conservative porteño and his safe eating habits (intestines, brains, kidneys, etc. aside.)

On the menus, it is hard to get beyond beef empanandas (meat turnovers), ensalada Caprese (mozzarella, tomato and basil), milanesa de ternera (breaded veal cutlet), bife de chorizo or bife de lomo (both Argentine steak cuts), ñoquis (potato pasta balls – every 29th of each month is Ñoqui Day), fideos con salsa Bolognese (spaghetti with tomato meat sauce), papas fritas (French fries), and flan. Oh! I left out pizza Napolitana (pizza topped with tomatoes, olives, garlic and cheese.)

Buenos Aires is a very ethnically populated city; however, its list of exotic restaurants is fairly small in each category. There are three or four Mexican restaurants, two Thai restaurants, one Iranian restaurant, several Indian restaurants, four or five Japanese restaurants, a handful of Korean, Vietnamese, and Taiwanese restaurants, and a fair dose of Chinese restaurants.

As a visitor to Buenos Aires, one can stay busy during a week stay with new tastes and flavors. After that, it is time to resort to your comfort foods of home (if you can find all of the ingredients) or go in search of the exotic stuff.

A wonderful gift arrived from my sister, Saffie, over the Holidays: Nina Simmonds’ cookbook, Asian Noodles: Deliciously Simple Dishes to Twirl, Slurp and Savor. It has beautiful color photos and concise, easy to prepare recipes. I thumbed through the recipes and made mental notes:

Uh-oh…“cellophane noodles”…I wonder if I can get away with throwing the cellophane wrapper into the pot with linguine?

Nope – can’t do that one – I need fresh ginger (surprisingly not available in my local supermarket.)

Fermented black beans? What if I got that can of black beans I brought back from Puerto Rico and added a bit of vino tinto….then I could put it out in the sun for a few days…

Peanuts? The only place I have seen them – in this country – is in the sleazy little tango bars in San Telmo; people drink cervesa nacional and toss the shells on the floor. I put mine in the ash tray.

Chinese rice wine? FORGET IT! Even the Californians have trouble getting their wines on the shelves here!

Dried red chile peppers? The closest I have come to that was a jar of Old El Paso jalapeño peppers. And that was way across town in – you guessed it – WalMart!

Snow peas. The only peas Argentines eat are canned ones mixed with a lot of mayonnaise; chilled; and set on a buffet salad bar. Maybe throw a sliced hard-boiled egg on top for decoration.

Bamboo shoots. Haven’t seen them in the grocery store. How in the hell would I ask for that in Spanish? Is that rusty little labeless four-ounce cabn in the back of our pantry – bamboo shoots or tuna fish? Hmm…better donate that one to the Salvation Army.

“Curry, preferably Madras”…Madras shirts, maybe. Madras curry, no way, definitely not.

Oyster sauce, forget it – I’ll never find it. And UDON? What the hell is that?

It was time to take that exotic food safari.

Sharon Thomas had once told me about a China Town in Buenos Aires (yes, they have one of those here too.) She & Bill lived in Thailand for a while and she is an accomplished Thai cook. She goes there periodically for ingredients.

I started to make a list, then abandoned the idea, thinking that if I wrote it down, the very act of writing it might be a hex on availability….

BACT (that’s Buenos Aires China Town for all of you slow thinkers) is located in Belgrano, a neighborhood just north of and further out from the city than ours, Palermo. Belgrano is an interesting barrio with shady, tree-lined streets, universities, boutiques and funky little cafés. China Town is no more than three blocks square, if that. I had no idea where it was but figured that if I looked up some Chinese restaurants in Belgrano, chances were that I would stumble upon a Chinese grocery store.

My plan worked. I drove past a big, pink Chinese restaurant and immediately sought out a parking place. This area of Belgrano was a bit more run down but still very interesting. The architecture of the store fronts was of the old style probably from the Twenties’ or Thirties’. Two doors down from the Chinese restaurant, I found a Mom ‘n Pop Chinese grocery store. Outside by the curb, a skinny oriental man had placed a velvet cloth over a card table and had a display of all sorts of foreign, exotic stuff including condoms, playing cards, magazines, tooth picks, candy, and those little tiny umbrellas for pool drinks.

Inside, the store smelled like an authentic Mom ‘n Pop – old, bare concrete floors with noisy refrigerators that were probably as old as the building. The smell – neither good nor bad – of seafood and fresh produce filled the air. Chinese voices rattled on under the noise of the refrigerators. Salsa blared away on a little AM radio behind the checkout counter. A young Chinese woman sang along, probably trying to impress me with her Spanish.

This was a serious hit on my safari. Large sacks of different types of rice lay by the door – I guess they were too heavy to casually shoplift and that’s why they were there. Argentines don’t seem to eat a lot of rice and this was probably a sight for sore eyes for those who do. The shelves were packed with cans, packs, boxes and bags of stuff. I next encountered a major problem:

I don’t read Chinese.

Everything was labeled with oriental characters. Even in French, Italian, German, or Dutch, you can decipher somewhat. I only had pictures to rely on. I spotted a familiar icon – The Green Giant! It was a can of corn. The Green Giant was talking in Chinese! He was probably telling the shopper that it was fresh corn from America – Texas, to be exact…from the same little town where John Wayne was sheriff. I almost bought the can for the novelty.

There were all different kinds of soy sauce, something easily recognizable. There was Kikoman but I figured in this group, it was probably one of the lesser. Nearby, I found a bottle with a picture of a fish on it. It HAD to be fish sauce, one of the items I was after. A young Chinese man was stocking the shelves. If Sis is singing Salsa, Bro most likely habla espanol. “Es salsa pescado?” I asked. “Si!” he nodded back in an Oriental fashion.

Closer inspection revealed that there were a few labels in Spanish. This helped tremendously. I was able to find oyster sauce, Hoisin sauce, hot sauce, sesame oil, rice wine, rice wine vinegar, and more. These are all pretty basic Oriental staples that usually can be found in most American supermarkets. Soy sauce is about the only thing you can find in the supermarket in Buenos Aires – and it is not always available.

There were a lot of strange things that I had no idea what they were. The dried seaweed was interesting. All different types – a whole shelf full. A lot of canned meats too – yuck! It was hard to weed out the exotic from the non-exotic. Remember, everything was in Chinese and they also happened to sell Chinese soft drinks, soda crackers, etc.. ANYTHING Chinese, I guess these folks carried.

The store actually was an Oriental market. There were Japanese, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, and Taiwanese products as well. I soon figured out they were arranged by cuisine.

An Argentine couple browsed the shelves as I did. They spoke in Spanish and were having the same difficulties I was. He was in his sixties and seemed to be genuinely interested in exotic cuisines. My guess was that he might have been retired from the merchant marine and most likely lived in some of these places and knew how to partly decipher a Chinese can of Green Giant Corn.

An upper class Argentine woman walked by us. She had Sis in tow who was doing her best to find ingredients from the English language cookbook the woman was carrying. The woman would call out the word in English, and translate it into Spanish for Sis. Sis repeated the word in Spanish, thought about it for a moment, and call out the word in Chinese as she headed for the item. Should have brought MY cookbook, I thought.

Next came the noodle section. WOW! And I thought the Argentines had ALL of the pastas! There were Korean sweet potato noodles, rice sticks, Somen, rice noodles, rice paper wrappers, Ramen, flat Chinese wheat flour noodles, Korean Buckwheat noodles, cellophane noodles, Udon, Saba, and more noodles that resembled Italian pasta. Hey – I even saw a Ronzoni fettucine box with Chinese writing on it! I grabbed a bunch and tossed them into my basket.

My eyes were tired of straining over Chinese characters, so I headed for the produce section which was in an adjoining room. There was a strange, fishy smell which I couldn’t identify. There were all sorts of cabbages, root vegetables, lemongrass, and more. As my eyes scanned the veggies, my foot was slightly touching the side of a big plastic cooler on the floor of what I thought were fresh oysters. Out of the corner of my eye it was a sort of mass of gray-green stuff in murky sea water. Then I felt a thump; a vibration; something moving…

Holy Shit! I looked down and saw hundreds of green eels twirling around each other in the cooler. They were mean looking – like amphibious cobras. I stepped back just in case. I thought about the times I had eaten eel in sushi restaurants. They didn’t look anything like this! Had Indiana Jones been standing next to me and witnessed this, I would have probably had to pull him out from under the Saba noodles in the next room…

Nearby, my attention focused on the beautiful, ripe mangoes! Ah…and they smelled so wonderful. A man was cutting up a large, prickly, watermelon-sized fruit that looked like an unshelled lychee nut. A pretty Chinese woman with a baby on a shoulder harness also watched. The baby had a large, perfectly round head with delicate, porcelain doll-like features. We both stared at each other momentarily. He looked like a watercolor painting of the Man in the Moon.

On the way back to the check out, I looked over more vegetables. A foul, fishy smell – not unlike dried bacalao – hit me. I looked up and what looked like old corpses of the Alien. They were dried squid – big ones!

I looked down and saw a Chinese man carefully coming up behind a lone eel that had been spilled onto the floor. He quickly and firmly grabbed it about four inches below its head. Judging by the care with which he was holding it, that eel is either highly venomous or he has one helluva bite!

Sis was back at the cash register and listening to her Salsa. Without laser scanner or marked price tags, she quickly rang up my stuff. How does she remember those prices, I thought. Hell, even the Jumbo girls can’t finish my cart without a “SERVICIO!” I decided to trust her. Afterall, Spanish with a Chinese accent wasn’t too easy for me to deal with…

I decided to take a short walk around China Town. There wasn’t much Laundries, restaurants and a few Chinese five and dimes (the Woolworth equivalent) that looked like they sold nothing but party favors and those little tiny umbrellas for pool drinks.

I got in the car and drove to Vicky’s office to pick her up. All I could think about was how delicious those spicy noodles were going to taste for dinner..

“Remember, we are supposed to go out to dinner with my co-worker from Brasil and his wife, ” Vicky remarked as she got into the car.

“Oh yeah, I forgot,” I answered, suppressing a frown.

“So… what shall we do… Steak, Pasta, or Pizza?”

Later that night, I dreamed of noodles and eels.

But I don’t think it was Freudian.

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