Uruguay is a country with an abundance of cuisine and national dishes. Despite being one of the smallest countries in South America Uruguay holds its own in terms of culinary traditions.
One of Uruguay's main exports is beef farmed on the estancias, ranches, of the inland interior region. As well as producing high quality meat for the rest of the world Uruguayans consume a lot of meat, particularly beef, and the country has one of the highest consumption rates per capita in the world.
A popular way to eat meat is an asado. Asado is barbecued meat which is cooked on an open grill or parrilla. Some common meals cooked in this way are churrasco, grilled steak, and parrillada, grilled beef platter.
Beef production has played a large role in Uruguayan culture. In the eighteenth century the gauchos lived by hunting wild cattle on horseback in the pampas, grasslands, of Uruguay. With the advent of commercial cattle ranching the gauchos became attached to the estancias, ranch settlements. Although their nomadic way of life has now passed into folklore the gauchos are a symbol of cultural and national identity in Uruguay.
When European immigrants flocked to Uruguay in the nineteenth century they brought their culinary traditions with them. Pastas, pizzas, sausages and a range of desserts common to Europe pay homage to this immigrant ancestry. Faina, an Italian flatbread made from chickpea flour is very popular as an appetizer or to accompany pizza. Look out for meals with the word caballo in the description. This is a general term for dishes where one part of a meal sits on top of another. Pizza and faina served together is often called pizza a caballo which translates as horseback pizza, another reference to the gaucho lifestyle.
When desserts are served they are likely to involve the South America sweet treat dulche de leche. This is a sauce made by slowly heating sweetened milk and sugar. This paste is used to flavour cakes, ice cream, to make flan or just to spread on breads. Look out for alfajores; two cookies with dulche de leche sandwiched between them.
Something very prevalent in Uruguay is the drinking of Mate. Mate is a traditional infused drink made from the yerba mate (mate herb). The dried, loose leaves of the herb are ground and placed in a traditional cup, also called a mate. The tea is sipped through a bombilla, a straw made of metal which filters the tea as it is drunk. Hot water is added until the leaves are used up. Yerba mate contains a wide range of vitamins and nutrients and is drunk to detoxify, stimulate, energise and to boost immunity.
When it comes to something a little stronger in a beverage Uruguay has a distinctive culture of wine making which has only recently penetrated the export market and is still relatively unknown. The tannat grape thrives in the clay-loam soil of Uruguay as it does in the south-west of France. Uruguayan tannat wine is soft and fruity. Merlot, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are also commonly grown varieties. Most of the wine growing regions of Uruguay are located outside of Montevideo capital city across Montevideo, San Jose and Canelones. Since wines produced in Uruguay come from small, family run wineries the quality is high and winemakers aim to create distinctive wines rather than mass produce a certain flavour.
The Uruguayan Wine Tourism Association has information about touring the wineries around Montevideo or you can head to the Mercado del Puerto and have a glass of something local with your asado. Cheers!