Monday, January 20, 2014

Uruguay: The Sweet Spot

article from May 11, 2011
by Julie R Butler

After having enticed you with some images of Uruguay's lovely beaches, this article is meant to serve up a few observations about this little nation that I like to call the Dulce de Leche in the Argentina-Brazil alfajor.

So let me begin with what I think is one of the most important concepts to understand about Uruguay: the Alfajor. An alfajor is a cookie sandwich, and if you think I am exaggerating about its importance (maybe I am, but only a little) take a look at the Marley Alfajores Facebook page, which shows just how hip a snack can be.

It is, of course, the dulce de leche, a creamy, caramel-like substance, that makes the alfajor, and that is another important concept to understand about Uruguay. All Uruguayans, I’m pretty sure, love dulce de leche, while I cannot say the same about the mate that most Uruguayans can’t live without. A Uruguayan who declines to drink mate, a tea-like substance that is usually poured into a gourd-like (or an actual gourd) container into which boiled-like water is carefully poured (very hot but never boiling!), and sipped through a straw-like implement (the call it a pipe), is a rebel ...with or without a cause.

And so, you see just how cohesive Uruguayan culture is. Cookie sandwiches are totally hip, while not going through life with a gourd in one hand and a thermos of not-boiled-but-still –hot-enough-that-you-nearly-burn-your-lips-when-you-sip-it-through-that-metal-straw-thingy water tucked under your arm  is “radical.” ...and some people think Uruguay is boring!

I have heard many a yanqui complain that the food in Uruguay is boring. It does seem to be true that Uruguayans generally do not have a taste for spicy foods. But I would argue that it is a case of overstimulation on the part of the yanquis, not lack of flavor of the food. And again, this issue of cultural cohesiveness is involved. I have mentioned before the multiculturalism of Uruguay, yet when it comes to food, there is not a Korean barbecue, a Greek café, a Chinese takeout, a California grille, a southern-fried chicken, a Boston clam chowder, and a Mexican, Thai, and Indian restaurant in every city. There are some ethnic restaurants in Montevideo and probably in Punta del Este (I have to admit, I’ve never been there), but my point here is that in developing nations, one doesn’t have the luxury of eating radically different foods every day of the week. “Variety” means that there are half a dozen types of empanadas available, or three kinds of sauces to put over your choice of five shapes of pasta, or you can have that hamburger completa – lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, bacon, cheese, and a fried egg – or simple. After a while, the lack of condiments made with high-fructose corn syrup, of the disguising of the flavorlessness of factory-produced fruits, vegetables, and meats by artificial “flavor-enhancers,” and of exotic spices and heavy sauces, all replaced by the beauty of keeping things simple, might just grow on you, if you let them.

I am also not exaggerating when I say that Uruguayan beef is the best in the world. Why, even the New York Times says so. I am a person who didn’t eat red meat (I stuck to fish and chicken for reasons outlined in the book Diet for a Small Planet) for over twenty years, but now I do. I was never a fan of beef. Now, I am really looking forward to the day when I can have some of that lovely, grass-fed by law, all natural, Uruguayan beef. Pass the chimichurri!

A few notes:

For more about living in Uruguay, Uruguay Expat Life (up-to-date as of January 2014) is a great source of useful information.

And this is the main reason why I have accepted Uruguayan beef into my life.

Julie R Butler is a writer, journalist, editor, and author of several books, including Nine Months in Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). She is a contributor to Speakout at, and her current blog is Connectively Speaking
email: julierbutler [at] yahoo [dot] com, Twitter: @JulieRButler