By Joanna Marracelli
When asked about Uruguayan gastronomy, you might get more than a few perplexed looks. Does Uruguay really have a cuisine of their own? Well, honestly, not really. A few months back, I chatted with Chef Ignacio Mattos (Estela), who hails from Uruguay, about the matter. He agreed that there was no such thing as ‘Uruguayan food’. That is, except one thing. El chivito. If Uruguay can lay claim to fame for one national dish, this sandwich gets the glory.
Perhaps Anthony Bourdain put it best when he visited the country to sample the sandwich:
“The first thing I need to talk about is the chivito, because it’s the best sandwich I’ve tasted in my life, including the venerated & thousand times described pastrami sandwich of New York and the mortadella and cheese sandwich from the market of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Really, the chivito is too good to be true; it’s almost impossible to eat because of how tall it is. Moreover, the idea of putting together beef, bacon, ham and cheese in the same bite, without counting all the other things it contains, is incredible. What’s more, in the US you could be arrested for daring to eat something like this. For me, any country that embraces this as its national sandwich is great!”
If there is one thing that Uruguay has, that no other country does, it’s good quality, grass-fed beef. Argentina is more famous for its beef but I will let you in on a little secret. Uruguay has better beef. And the meat is precisely what makes this sandwich irresistible.
So how did a humble sandwich rise up to become the national dish of an entire country? It started back in the 1940’s, at a restaurant (sadly, not in existence anymore) called El Mejillón in Punte del Este. An Argentine woman, who was vacationing there, asked the chef to make her a sandwich using chivito (baby goat). The chef had no goat on hand and so he improvised. Instead, he used thinly sliced beef filet, topped with a piece of ham between a crusty roll. The rest, as they say, is history.
Let’s take the chivito apart, to see what makes it so special. It’s a carnivore’s delight, a monster of a sandwich, and practically a heart attack on a platter, but it’s mouth-wateringly delicious. First we start with the bun–usually something like a ciabatta works well. You want something that has a crust on the outside and is softer inside. Next you need the key ingredient, the meat. Tender, filet of beef is used and is sliced very thin and pounded to make it very tender. It’s important to use high quality, grass-fed meat for this, which Uruguay has in abundance.
The meat gets pan-seared and topped with thin slices of ham, which also get cooked briefly in the pan. Mozzarella cheese is added and melted on top (under a broiler). The sandwich gets finished with pan fried onions & peppers, tomato, lettuce, green olives and either a hard-boiled egg (chopped) or a fried egg. Salsa golf is the condiment of choice and is a mixture of ketchup and mayo. Variations include mushrooms, bacon or Canadian bacon and then the sandwich is called, what else, but a Canadian?
Roasted peppers and lettuce get laid on the bottom half of the bun, followed by the meat (beef and ham) with the melted cheese on top. Slices of tomato, green olives and a fried egg or sliced hard-boiled egg are next. The top half of the bun is ready to cover it but first, a nice smattering of the salsa golf is added. Naturally, there are variations to this too.
The chivito sounds like a messy, gut-busting sandwich. And it is. But that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. This is no finger sandwich. Grab a fork and knife (and lots of napkins) and dig in for a taste or Uruguay!