Uruguay - meat, mate and Montevideo

15 June 2013

Uruguay. Home to 1 million dogs, 3 million people, and 6 million cows- it's no wonder they're big on beef. It's a tiny country with some great quirks; a president who gives away 90% of his salary to a development fund, for example. A complete lack of social class hierarchy means you can find said president in drinking holes around Montevideo – and have a chat with him, no matter who you are. It's likely, if you're Uruguayan, that you'll probably have a friend or acquaintance in common, actually (3 million people is really not a lot). And the lack of social hierarchy drawing from job positions or ancestry has been replaced with a kind of 'culinary hierarchy' instead, with prestige bestowed upon the best meat preparer (asador) or pourer of mate tea (servador).

Those are just a few of the quirks that I found out about when I was welcomed by Mariana and Mateo in Montevideo; so warmly welcomed, in fact, that I'm now still wearing Mariana's jacket, despite now being in Santiago, Chile. This perhaps is another key characteristic of the Uruguayan people – as the people in my shuttle service taxi in Montevideo told me, “You'll have a wonderful time here! Uruguayans are so caring!!” – and my experience can definitely confirm this.

It was my first time in Montevideo, and undoubtedly my lack of knowledge of the culture shone through. For example, though I had heard a lot about the meat, especially beef, from Uruguay, I had never tried a true “asado”- a kind of barbecue, cooked on wood. Last night was my first, and I think I'm still recovering; we ordered a dish for two people, which actually ended up feeding 5 people, and leaving some left over. I'm still baffled as to how any two people could ever eat that amount of food, but they reassured me that such people do, in fact, exist.

The practice of holding an 'asado' barbecue for your friends, thus becoming the 'asador', puts you in a high position on the culinary hierarchy. I imagine it a bit like hosting Christmas dinner for a huge group of friends; “Hey, look – I'm the best chef!”

Similarly in the field of drink, Uruguayan culture rallies around drinking mate tea. In groups of friends sitting and chatting together, walking along the street with friends, studying late at night ; any excuse, mate seems to pop up. Preparing it is a true skill; good 'servadores' can use the same mate leaves to produce multiple cups of tea (tip – look out for foam, the sign of a good mate!) - and those less fortunate can ruin their mate leaves within two cups. Within groups of friends, the especially talented servadores are known, and you can tell how seriously someone takes their mate drinking by their mate container. Mariana's had her initials engraved on it, and looked beautiful – the sign of a good servadora.

They told me that, although mate drinking was a key point in cultures of other countries in the region, Uruguayans were the only ones who would carry their mate around with them, complete with a thermos full of hot water, and drink it while walking on the street. And, true to form, when at Montevideo Airport, I saw lots of people taking out their mate from their special mate bags, and pouring themselves a cup while waiting at the departures gate!

But enough of food. For now. More later, on the fascinating politics, poorest president, and middle-road foreign policy!


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