Slow-cooking large cuts of beef and other meat over a wood fire, aka barbecue, has a long tradition in the U.S., but it's not the only place. Argentina might outdo the U.S. in terms of its passion for barbecue. In many ways, it's the Argentine national pastime. And it centers on a wood-fired barbecue grill called a parrilla.
What Is a Parrilla?
The word parrilla in Argentine cuisine can refer to two things, either the grill itself, which is some variation on a metal grill grate situated over a firebox filled with wood and embers, or a steakhouse where barbecued meat is served.
And incidentally, it's pronounced "pa-REE-ja," with the "ja" sound at the end, which is typical in Argentine pronunciation, as opposed to the "ya" sound which is how the double-L is often pronounced in other Spanish-speaking cultures.
Another traditional style of Argentine barbecue is the asado, which is a style of cooking a whole animal, such as a goat, sheep or pig, on a spit or cross over an open wood fire. But with parrilla cooking, a metal grate is always involved.
The History of the Parrilla
The history of the parrilla in Argentina dates back to the days of the gauchos, or horse-mounted cattlemen in the 18th and 19th centuries, basically the South American version of cowboys, famous not only in Argentina, but also Uruguay, Paraguay and parts of Brazil.
One of the culinary traditions that arose from the culture of the gauchos is utilizing every cut of beef on the carcass. And as anyone knows who's ever cooked very large cuts of beef, it requires long, slow cooking to make them turn out tender.
In theory you could accomplish this through braising, but the gauchos did not have large braising pots and massive amounts of water for cooking. What they did have, however, is plenty of wood and wide open space for building fires. Thus was born the tradition of cooking beef on the parrilla.
Another feature of Argentine barbecue is that it does not necessarily feature much in the way of spices and seasonings, again due to the migratory nature of the gaucho lifestyle. Salt, however, is exceedingly important. "Sal parrillera," or grilling salt, is a coarse-grained rock salt that's an essential ingredient for Argentine barbecue, which is sprinkled on the meat immediately before grilling or after it goes on the grill.
Modern Parrilla Cooking
Modern parrilla steakhouses in Argentina specialize in thick steaks seasoned with salt and served with a chimichurri dipping sauce. The most popular cuts of beef include the ojo de bife, or ribeye; the bife de chorizo, or sirloin; and the lomo, or tenderloin, which is sometimes sliced at the table by the waiter using a spoon. The portion sizes are, well, generous, and sharing is encouraged.
Flank steak, skirt steak and short ribs are also extremely popular parrilla offerings.
In addition to steaks, Argentine steakhouses also serve a variety of sausages, including morcilla, a pork based blood sausage that's made in both a savory and sweet version; chorizo, a fatty pork sausage served with bread and chimichurri; and salchicha parrillera, which is a longer, thinner version of the traditional chorizo.
Other delicacies include offal meats such as kidney, sweetbreads and chitterlings, as well as the provoleta, a disc of semi-soft provolone that's grilled on a cast-iron pan until crisp and golden brown on the inside but still gooey on the inside, then topped with oregano, pepper flakes and olive oil.
How Do You Make a Parrilla?
In its simplest form, a parrilla is any metal or iron grill grate situated over a heat source of hot coals or wood embers. These can be massive, elaborate affairs with masonry walls, adjustable grill grates and fireside wood baskets, or something as simple as an iron grate supported by a few bricks. It's not uncommon to see a shopping cart repurposed as a parrilla. A sheet of metal on lower rack holds the coals while the upper compartment, where the groceries go, holds the meat.
The basic idea, though, is that you have some sort of metal tray below for stoking your hot coals and a grate above it—in other words, a charcoal grill.
The key to grilling Argentine style, as opposed to ordinary charcoal grilling, is to do it at a low temperature for a long time, which is the same approach that's used with traditional North American barbecue. The main difference is in the cuts of meat used (and how big they are) and the seasonings you apply. Instead of spicy dry rubs and barbecue sauces, the meat is served naked, seasoned only with salt, and accompanied by a tangy but not necessarily spicy chimichurri dipping sauce.
And while you might not be able to duplicate the traditional sausage or some of the other delicacies, grilling a steak a la parrilla is definitely something anyone who knows their way around a charcoal grill can try.