“Wow! You’re going to study abroad in Argentina? I hear they have the best steak in all of South America. You can’t leave without trying it. You’ll love it”
“How cool, but I’m vegetarian.”
“Oh…Well I’m sure there are other things to do there too..”
As I began to prepare for my upcoming year spent in the city of Mendoza, Argentina, this was a very typical conversation that I experienced day after day. After being a vegetarian for five years (and counting) I wasn’t all that bothered by the questions and confusion that surrounded my choice to eliminate meat from my diet, especially when I answered that yes, that included bacon too. When you are about to embark on a year in a foreign country where the official language is only your second language that you more or less understand after a couple semesters of elementary Spanish classes, however, the last thing you want to hear is that you are going to stand out even more than the genetics that you’re stuck with.
The two day orientation we had in Buenos Aires was slightly intimidating, as every massive meal that IFSA provided us with more times than not was an entrée of a perfectly cooked Argentine steak. Us four vegetarians bonded, as we were always served pasta as a replacement, more or less around 5x the normal serving size. I won’t lie, with the strong Italian influence in the country, the pasta was no thing to complain about. Though this did add to my worries of what was to happen to my new jeans if all these carbs were about to become a main staple of my diet.
Relief soon came, though, after I landed in Mendoza and met my amazing host mother who turned out to be vegetarian too. She actually still ate chicken and ham, but that’s about as close as you can get in the huge meat producing country. I soon learned that as long as I was safely at home, I could have all the hidden Argentine gems such as butternut squash and ricotta cheese pies and huge omelets loaded with cheese and vegetables.
The issues started in my initial attempts to be social and to avoid the common culture shock-driven desire to stay in and finish a whole season on Netflix. The popular social gathering of Argentina is called an asado. Basically, it is an amped up BBQ where everyone brings their own choice of meat and throws it on a grill to cook for the night. Sometimes vegetables are included, but many times that means a mere bowl of iceberg lettuce on the table and possibly a couple of onions thrown on the grill, just to add a bit more to your plate of meat. The asados are an important social gathering in Argentine culture and range from huge family asados to fancy business gatherings to laid back hangouts or parties with friends.
I began to avoid some of these social gatherings just because I knew there wouldn’t be anything for me to eat. I didn’t want to pay for all the meat that I wasn’t going to touch and I often just wasn’t ready for a night filled with misunderstanding of why I was only eating the sides on the table. Still struggling with my Spanish, it was all I could do to try and blend in with the culture around me.
My fears turned out to be unfounded. Even though I did usually have to explain myself at every social gathering, I never felt too out of place or uncomfortable. The people I met were even in many instances very interested in the life of a vegetarian and almost seemed to respect me for it, even though they couldn’t relate. Before our weekly lazy Sunday afternoon asados on the beach of Potrerillos, we always made necessary runs to the vegetable section of the grocery store. A friend of mine taught me how he could cook delicious bell peppers with eggs inside on the grill alongside the meat. I started to bring my own eggplants or peppers to asados with new people who I’d never met. Another friend would constantly cook with me, making amazing concoctions with vegetables that I had never even thought of. He even admitted at times that those full meals, without even one bite of meat, weren’t as terrible as he would have thought. Even though I always had this dreaded feeling that people would think I was weird or disrespecting their culture and traditions, I was constantly proven wrong. Of course there were always a few questioning looks and worries that I wasn’t getting enough to eat, but there was never a person who had a problem cooking some extra vegetables for me. Instead of being intimidated, I gained confidence to speak up for myself and own my uniqueness.
However, even with Argentine culture being so revolved around the meat food group, Mendoza offered all kinds of amazing vegetarian options around the city. Among my favorite discoveries were these all-vegetarian buffets that were, surprisingly, everywhere. Something that I had never even discovered in the United States, these were buffets that served only vegetarian food. After you filled a plate or to-go box with all you could want, they placed it on a scale and you paid for the weight rather than paying for a never-ending plate. My waist thanked me. One of my favorites was called Govinda. Located right on the main touristy street of Aristides Villanueva, it offered the best layout of foods only a vegetarian could dream of. You could also take a box to-go or dine in on their large outdoor seating area.
Being a vegetarian in Mendoza was in no sense a small or easy feat. Some others in my program chose to take a semester off from being one so as to be able to fully experience the culture more and not have to deal with the challenges. For me, though, after being vegetarian for five years, it was already an integral part of my life. I spent a full year in Argentina and I knew I wouldn’t feel right if I gave up that part of me. Though it absolutely sucked when I couldn’t eat some golden, warm empanadas because they were all either meat or ham and cheese, but being vegetarian allowed me to keep my identity while in the foreign country for a year and above all taught me so much about acceptance. I wouldn’t have changed a single thing.
To be honest, my very last night in Argentina I did attend my last asado with friends and, as promised, I tried one small bite of Argentine steak, just to say I did. Though I don’t think I’ll ever change my feelings about it, it wasn’t too bad and I would agree that it would be silly to leave the country without at least a bite.