One item on the menu catches my eye: flank steak with Argentinean chimichurri sauce and rosemary potatoes. It evokes the flavors of my home country. I’m happy that I can taste them here in Texas.
When I order the steak, our young server start to explain what chimichurri is: a sauce blah blah. “Oh, I know what it is, thanks.” Undeterred, he finishes his explanation. I tune out. The food arrives. The steak looks delicious and so do the potatoes. I look around for the chimichurri but I only see a creamy, Kryptonite green sauce on my steak. Is this it? Maybe I should have listened to our server. I try a little bit. It tastes of fresh herbs but chimichurri it is not. Not for the first time, my expectations as to flavors and techniques are clearly divorced from the reality on my plate.
I wasn’t kidding when I said I knew chimichurri. We come from the same country, we have a history together. Let’s see. Chimichurri is a very popular Argentinean sauce traditionally eaten with beef or grilled sausage. We sometimes affectionately call it “chimi” for short. It’s a fundamental component of the Argentinean Sunday asado, that coma-inducing grilled meat fest which takes the status of a religious ritual every Sunday. Men gather round the parrilla grill chatting and drinking beer while the meats slowly cook above the embers. Cooking on open flame is a foreign concept to us. Women set the table and make the salad. (Hmmm guys, we need to discuss gender equality.)
Some home cooks guard their secret recipe with their lives but are generous enough to make extra jars of chimi for their friends and family. However, most people buy it from the store. There are a few brands to choose from. I have brought back a bottle or two but I prefer to buy the dry mix. I rehydrate it with water and then add vinegar and oil and store it in the refrigerator.
At local parrillas, Argentinean steakhouses, waiters bring chimichurri and salsa criolla to the table together with the beef. Now, if it’s fresh sauce you’re after, salsa criolla is ideal. It consists of chopped fresh tomato, red bell pepper and green onions, salt, vinegar and oil.
The basic ingredients of traditional Argentinean chimichurri are parsley, either fresh or dried, dried oregano, minced garlic, red chile flakes, vinegar and oil. It can be more or less spicy depending on how much red chile is used. Unlike other Latin Americans, we don’t have asbestos mouths and therefore don’t like too much picante. A little warmth is just perfect.
The vinegar helps preserve the chimichurri and its acidity balances out the fatty flavour of the meat. Also, vinegar cleanses the palate and awakens the taste buds. The oil brings all the ingredients together. The red chile flakes give it poke and the herbs give it earthy flavour. Garlic simply makes everything better. Traditionally, cooks used brine (salmuera) instead of oil. The brine, according to Argentinean chef Narda Lepes, tones down the pungency of the fresh garlic.
The origin of chimichurri is shrouded in mystery. Legend has it that English settlers in Patagonia would say “Give me the curry!” to the non-English speaking criollo ranch hands. Presumably, they needed curry powder to season lamb. And the poor gauchos butchered the phrase until it became “chimichurri.” Although this is a popular story, it’s probably not true, as you might have guessed.
According to the Academia Argentina de Gastronomía, the word chimichurri derives from the Basque Tximitxurri, which means mishmash. I did a quick Google search, which yielded precisely nothing. Basque language dictionaries don’t even list that word! Anyway, we don’t really need to know the etymology of the word to enjoy the flavor, do we?
So, besides carrrrrrrrrrrne (come on, roll your Rs, people) and chorizos or choripán (sausage sandwich), what other foods go with chimi? None! Some may spread it on other grilled meats, like chicken, lamb or fish, but it’s not that common. Forget adding chimichurri to a bowl of pasta — you’re making me cry. We don’t mix it with mayo to make a sandwich spread. That’s just wrong on principle. It may be tasty but I can’t bring myself to try it and disgrace generations of gauchos.
Since the time I ate the flank steak with faux-chimichurri, I’ve come across many recipes by famous TV chefs and food magazines. Like when you buy a red car and suddenly you notice all the red cars on the road. On the one hand, it made me happy to see a component of Argentinean cuisine catch on in the U.S. On the other hand, it was appalling to see how everyone mistreated it.
Look here, Mr. Hot Shot TV Chef: traditional Argentinean chimichurri shouldn’t necessarily look “fresh” and “vibrant.” Chimi ain’t no pesto! It is a dull shade of brownish green with red specks. If you want to use fresh parsley, fine. But please, do not mix it with a hand mixer or food processor. That green slime belongs in a scene from The Exorcist. Please stop. Seriously.
Creativity in the kitchen is a fine thing. By all means, express yourself. Use fresh cilantro or jalapeño if you must. But if you come up with your own variant of chimichurri, por el amor de Dios, get creative with the name too, dear Chef, and call it something else! If you call it “traditional Argentinean chimichurri,” then stick to tradition, por favor.
Ana Astri-O’Reilly is a bilingual travel blogger and writer originally from Argentina but she lives in Dallas now. Besides writing for her blogs, Ana Travels and Apuntes Ideas Imagenes, Ana has published travel and food articles in a variety of outlets.