To really experience a new culture, one must go outside of his/her comfort zone, try new things, take a walk in someone else’s shoes (or take a bite with someone else’s fork ?). Knowing that Uruguay (like much of South America) prides itself on its barbecue, we began our travels with the understanding that it would be difficult to maintain our vegetarian lifestyles.
Part I: Herbivores
We were facing a traveler’s dilemma. Being vegetarian had become an important part of our identities, and yet:
Now, about three weeks into our adventure, our relationship with vegetarianism looks something like Taylor Swift’s love life: one day, we’re laughing on a park bench thinking to ourselves, “hey, isn’t this easy”; the next, we’re OTPHJing the other One Direction bozo while Ed Sheeran cries ginger tears from deep in the corner of the friend zone … Simply put, “it’s complicated.”
Flashback: How We Became Veggie Heads
One fateful Saturday during the Fall of 2015, Cat grabbed a beer and some cheese (probably), snuggled up on the couch, and browsed Netflix for something to watch. Not unusual. For reasons unknown, she decided to watch the documentary, Cowspiracy.
Kale joined about 20 minutes in (perhaps after hearing Cat’s squeals) and roomies Max and Andy tuned in soon after.
When it was over, we were all* a little shaken. We won’t go into the details of the documentary (if you’re interested, check it out), but the decision to become a vegetarian household1 came easily and with little debate.
*It’s worth noting that our roommate, Andy, was only ever a domestic-vegetarian. When he was out of the house, he would gorge on burgers and Panda Express. At home, he would douse his veggies with Sriracha (likely as a coping mechanism). So his “vegetarianism” comes with an asterisk, just like his first (and only?) win in our household’s favorite board game, Ticket to Ride.
- The environment. We were Cowspiracy-sold. We had a refreshed understanding of how meat is produced and sold and the harmful effects this mass-production has on the environment.
- Our health. It’s no secret that animal products aren’t great for your health. And with full-time desk jobs and a lengthy commute, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find the time for regular exercise.2
- Culinary versatility. Prior to being veggie-heads, cooking was a chore. We didn’t know, or experiment with, much and a “gourmet” dinner consisted of a protein + one (maybe two) veggies. Heck, Kale didn’t even know what a mushroom felt like (they’re surprisingly light and spongy!)… With vegetarianism, we became more creative with our dishes, experimenting with new fruits, veggies, herbs and spices. Our household developed a great system. Each night, one roomie would be promoted to Head Chef of Kitchen 2323 (the name we gave our “restaurant”). Head Chef had the responsibility of “The Vision” while one or two sous chefs would assist with washing, chopping, stirring, etc.3
- Tempeh. And on the 8th day, God created tempeh… Cheap, filling, and healthy, this meat substitute made being vegetarian easy. Saying “no” to a bloody-delicious protein is tough, but with tempeh in the fridge, our meals were always hearty and full bodied.
Buying Organic — Dirty Dozen & Clean 15
With our entry into vegetarianism and our increased appreciation for all things veggie, we naturally became more curious about our food. Should we buy organic produce? What does free-range really mean? If a label is marked “natural” is it organic? What is the carbon footprint of these blueberries?
This is an expansive topic and we’re just going to focus on one of the issues: Organics.
What does “organic” really mean? Is it just a marketing ploy to price gouge fearful millennials?
Simply put, if a product shows “Certified Organic” or “USDA Organic”, then it must be at least 95% free of synthetic additives like pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and dyes, and must not be processed using industrial solvents, irradiation, or genetic engineering. The remaining 5% may be processed with additives from an approved list (ominous, huh?).
If a product shows “100% organic,” then 100% of the ingredients must meet the guidelines above (duh!). More sneakily, however, if a product shows “made with organic,” then it cannot use the USDA seal anywhere on the package and must contain a minimum of 70% organic ingredients. The remaining 30% may be processed with additives on the aforementioned “approved list.”
In a perfect world, we would consume only 100% organic produce. Alas, buying organic is not always possible, and even when it is, it’s often ridonkulously expensive.
Enter the ideas of the “Clean 15” and the “Dirty Dozen”. These lists detail which fruits and vegetables, on average, are subject to the most (Dirty Dozen) and the least (Clean 15) contamination by pesticide use4 making them a useful resource when deciding which organic produce to buy — and when it’s ok to opt for the cheaper, non-organic alternative. Our rule of thumb: make an effort to avoid non-organics in the Dirty Dozen.
And here’s a collage of 80s heartthrob Patrick Swayze, because there’s a 100% chance that “Dirty Dozen” font got you in the mood:
Part II: Carnivores: Our Return to the Dark Side
The demise of our vegetarian souls can be summarized with one word: Parrilla (pronounced by Uruguayans PAR-EESH-AH).5
Some Background on Uruguayan Parrilla
Uruguayos (pronounced OO-ROO-HUA-SHOS) are masters of the art of slow-cooking meat. Their grills, or parrillas, are slanted, which provides for variance in cooking temperature, and stoked by the embers of hardwood (rather than charcoal or propane) fed by the fat falling from the meat above, which contributes a unique flavor to the asado.
The asado, or the meat,6 is comprised of various cuts of beef, all of which is grass-fed from birth (rather than corn-fed — the norm in many other countries, including the good ol’ US of A). A traditional asado also includes morcilla, or sausaged cow (or pig) blood.
The cattle industry is extremely important to Uruguay, a nation where cattle outnumber people 4-to-1. As of late 2014, Uruguay was the only country in the world with a completely computerized traceability system for its beef — all cattle are electronically tagged at birth, part of the sophisticated system that is entirely paid for by the state. This empowers consumers at home and abroad with the knowledge of exactly where their beef comes from and how it was raised.
La Pulperia: A Vegetarian’s Graveyard
Our fantastic hosts, Federico and Laura, recommended one of their favorite restaurants to try local meat: La Pulperia. So on Day 4 in Montevideo and without much deliberation, we decided that we would take the plunge.
Since we didn’t have a reservation and the TripAdvisor reviews warned that this hole-in-the-wall fills up fast, we arrived at the restaurant right when they opened.
We scored seats right in front of the action.
The food was amazing; the atmosphere, lively. We walked home happy and with full bellies, but not before we inhaled some dessert: flan con dulce de leche.
Our Turn: A Parrilla at Home
A few weekends later, it was our turn. With Federico graciously serving as asador (grillmaster), we enjoyed a traditional parrilla.
The parrilla is a progressive experience and lasts much longer than a typical meal. We began with drinks (cerveza and mate, of course) and enjoyed some sunshine and conversation with new friends while our asador prepped the grill and food.
The event was also extremely educational! In the clip below, Federico explains which types of wood are typically used to fuel a parrilla Uruguaya.
The first item off the grill was the queso provoleta, a melted cheese topped with oregano and served with a toasted, baguette-style bread. This was followed by course after course (delivered via cutting-board by el asador) of bite-sized pieces of carne (meat), verduras (vegetables), and pan (bread). And yes, we even enjoyed the morcilla (blood sausage), which had a weirdly familiar7 and sweet taste to it.
The experience was unforgettable and the food, delicious — muy rico!
Part III: Un Poco Más, Por Favor
Though we aren’t calling ourselves “vegetarian” anymore, our veggie-only shopping habits haven’t kicked yet. Going forward, we expect we’ll maintain a mostly vegetarian diet — it’s a healthy lifestyle that contributes to a healthier planet.
Mouth watering? For more on food and why you’re no different than Pavlov’s dog, check out our post on Visual Gastronomy.