Asados (BBQ’s) are a big deal in Chile. On any given day there is sure to be at least one asado going on somewhere, within some circle of friends. I resisted them at first – being a definitive “not meat eater”, I felt the asado to be useful only as far as a social gathering tactic. When I first got here I shirked the call to the asado – I was busy establishing my routine here, testing the waters as a bonafide self-employed entrepreneur of sorts, but furthermore, I couldn’t stand the thought of standing around with a bunch of people celebrating and reveling in the slow-cooked flesh of animals.
But as time wore on, and countless invites to asados had come and gone, I decided to go to one. It’s a cultural thing, I told myself. If you don’t go to one, it’s as bad as not trying the coshari in Egypt, or the pupusas in El Salvador. I just needed to go to one to try it, to say I did it, and to participate in one of the few scraps of “true Chilean culture” in these parts. As I look back on it, I was probably more afraid of the potential of the asado ending up an addiction as both coshari and pupusas have since become, but the moral conundrum still weighed heavily on me. I just don’t like to eat a lot of meat (excluding seafood), and I certainly never purchase or prepare it myself. However, when I’m around it, I’ll try it. And if it’s good, I’ll eat a lot of it.
And here we see the inherent Conflict of the Asado: these Chileans really, really, really know how to cook meat. I am by no means a well-educated consumer of meat products, but holy crap hell god pants, this meat is GOOD. I am a believer of the idea that Chilean food is mostly tasteless, bland, and otherwise uninspired – but this belief does not extend to the food at an asado. Chileans cook exclusively with carbon – charcoal – and the art of the asado is as much a social gathering as a richly delicious food journey.
It took us awhile to acclimate to the pace and procedure of the asado. There were several important cultural differences, which I will explain below:
1. The Asado Never Starts On Time. If the asado is pegged to begin at 8pm, plan to eat around 11pm. Chilean time is much the same as time anywhere else in Latin America: severely lax, and more of a suggestion than any sort of binding commitment.
2. The Food Preparation is as Important as the Consumption. I got in trouble once with one of my Chilean friends when he told me to be at the asado by 7:30pm and I asked, “Well, is that when we’re eating?” The process of preparing the grill, cutting the meat, arranging the kebabs (if there are any) and engaging in all of the social activities around this process is as important as eventually eating the food. My American friends and I all shared this same outlook: in America, you show up when the food is ready, not hours before you eat. I suppose the act of cooking and preparing the meal is regarded far differently down here, and I can’t say I haven’t come to appreciate and perhaps prefer this approach. Preparing a meal to be enjoyed by your family tends to be a solitary and laborious process in the States – why is that? Think of Thanksgiving, or July 4th, or any birthday gathering you’ve had recently, and how was it prepared? Most likely by one or two people laboring quietly for hours before the event begins, where the start time of the party signals the beginning of the eating. We’ve since learned down here that you never go to an asado hungry, because you will be starving for hours sometimes, waiting for the first slab of meat to be ready.
3. Plates are Not Necessary. One of the other big differences between Chilean and American BBQ’s is the fact that the meat is consumed literally fresh off the grill, piece by piece. Once one steak or lomo is ready, it gets sliced up and everyone grabs a piece with their fingers. No utensils necessary. And then when the next piece is ready, the same thing happens. The eating takes place around the parilla, or grill; in fact, this was another hard lesson we had to learn. Luckily, one of our culturally-aware Chilean friends Ignacio was sensitive to this difference of eating behavior and brought pieces of meat to us when it became apparent that we Americans were waiting for some sort of procession to a dinner table or clearly-defined “Eating Time” during our first asado.
Because we are now medio-chileno (half-Chilean), we held an asado for Amanda’s 24th birthday this weekend. By this point, we’re all pretty skilled in the preparation for and execution of a Chilean asado, so it went off without a hitch. There was plenty of filete, lomo, salmon and papas (potatoes – not fathers) to go around.