Uruguay’s Star Sandwich: The Chivito
WHAT TO EAT: El Chivito sandwich
WHERE TO EAT IT: Uruguay; In Montevideo Marco’s in Pocitios neighborhood or El Tinkal (Dr. Emilio Frugoni 853)
Sandwiches. If there is such a thing as a universal food, it’s the sandwich. From bahn mi to panini to po’ boys to croque monsieur. The list is endless and it seems every country offers up their own beloved version. Sandwiches are one of the most perfect foods due to their portability, accessibility and flexibility and they speak to everyone from children to the elderly, crossing every economic border. The sandwich is something all can relate to, no matter where you grew up, what language you speak or how much money you have. I do believe, sandwiches can save the world!
Everyone likes some kind of sandwich. The concept is one of the most basic although some would argue that a sandwich could hardly even be considered something of a cuisine. I mean, after all, isn’t a sandwich just two slices of bread, stuffed with whatever you want? Putting the thing into a panini press hardly constitutes cooking. True, but the execution of the humble sandwich is what can propel it from school lunches to gourmet status in a heartbeat.
If I think back in my sandwich-eating history (we all have one don’t we?) it started, like many I’m sure, when I was a child. I was such a finicky eater back then, my poor mother would practically pull out her hair in search of something that I would actually eat on a regular basis. If only she could see me now, trying innards, ants and tongues, she would surely shake her head in disbelief. Most days she had to resort to standing at the stove making one of the few things I would actually eat the entire thing of, a grilled cheese sandwich. If someone had showed her the future me with a matured, grown-up palate, she would have assuredly stated “no way, not my child”.
But despite my evolved eating habits, the grilled cheese sandwich not only evokes images from my childhood, of being a small child patiently (hey, this is my memory here!) waiting for the sandwich to be ready (I swear I never uttered the words “is it ready yet?”) but also still remains one of my favorite foods to this day. These days I’ve had my share of gourmet versions made with cave-aged gruyere, stuffed with arugula on artisanal breads but I would still fully embrace a grilled cheese from my youth, one made with processed food criminal, Velveeta (I know, I know…) on Wonder white bread (another justifiably vile food of this day and age), just like ma & my brother used to make for me.
One can argue that the sandwich can even partly define a country. One look into the croque monsieur will tell you that France does not fuck around when it comes to food. Melted gruyere and ham on high-quality, crusty French bread covered with a bechamel sauce. Take that, you humble sandwich you! The bahn mi nods to French colonialism in Vietnam (bahn mi actually means bread and is a Vietnamese copy of a French baguette) mixed with modern-day Vietnamese ingredients like daikon and pork sausage. The submarine sandwich of the United States reflects the diversity found in this country. All over the US, it’s referred to by it’s different names: sub, hoagie, hero, wedge or grinder, depending upon what part of the states you are visiting. Indeed, a peek inside a sandwich reveals a lot.
Which takes me to the basis of this post. The chivito. This is Uruguay’s star sandwich and perhaps one of the only defining foods for the country. When one thinks of Uruguayan cuisine, an inevitable blank draws. Steak? Wine? Maté? Argentinian people will be the first to tell you that Uruguay is simply copying their foods. I disagree with that but it’s true, I am hard-pressed to define Uruguayan cuisine. I interviewed chef Ignacio Mattos , of highly acclaimed NYC restaurant, Estela, who was born in Uruguay. When I asked him what he thought of his country’s cuisine, he told me point-blank that there was no such thing. Let’s take a closer look at this largely unknown country.
Uruguay is a wonderful country, full of friendly people and beautiful landscapes. Almost 90% of the population is of European descent. Spanish, Portugese, Italian, British and even the French. Naturally, this reflects in everything. The architecture looks European, the foods are European influenced and the people look European. Hybrids of Italian-Spanish and Portuguese-Spanish are spoken.
Uruguay is also one of the most tolerant nations in the world. With the exception of Brazil, the majority of Latin America is not a gay friendly destination. On the whole, South America is pretty narrow minded when it comes to that sort of stuff. Uruguay was the first country in S. America to legalize same-sex civil union and allow for gay adoption. It was the first country in the Americas to test for hemp cultivation. Uruguay has no official organised religion and church and state are separate. Politicians deem it the most secular nation in the Americas.
When it comes to food, Uruguay, on the surface, tends to mirror Argentina with the wines, meat, Italian-influenced and maté everywhere. But on closer inspection, almost all of Uruguay’s meat is grass-fed to this day, whereas Argentina (more and more) are mass-producing beef that is fed grain or a mixture of grass/grain. Wines are different here too. You won’t find so much Malbec but instead the lovely Tannat grape. And Argentina cannot even compete with the amount of maté consumed in Uruguay. In Argentina it’s more of a social thing, although you do see people carrying their thermos to and from work. In Uruguay, everyone carries their own thermos, gourd and bombilla.
But perhaps the one food that really sets Uruguay apart from everywhere, including their neighbor, is the chivito. I feel like when celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visited the country, he put it best:
“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!”
My first experience with Uruguayan food was actually in New York. There is a lovely little restaurant called Tabaré in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was here that I had a chance to sample the chivito. It was also my first (of what was to become many) sip of the robust Tannat wine. If you live in New York and are curious to Uruguayan food, I can’t recommend this place enough. Do you have any Uruguayan restaurants in your city? If so, please let me know where in the comments section below.
So what exactly is in this sandwich that makes it so special? How did it come to be? 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. El Chivito is a carnivore’s delight, a monster of a sandwich, and practically a heart attack on a platter, but it’s mouth-wateringly delicious.
Throw your diet aside for the day and dig into one of the best sandwiches in the world.
Things You Will Need:
-Ciabatta bread (or bun or other crisp on outside, soft on inside bread)
-Grass Fed Beef steaks (any kind will work) pounded very thin and salted
-Slices of ham (you don’t want it too thick or too thin)
-Pancetta or canadian bacon (sliced) or bacon slices
-Onions and Peppers (thinly sliced and pan fried in olive oil until tender)
-Green olives chopped
-Fried or hard boiled egg
-Salsa golf (mayo and ketchup mixed together)
*Things like the lettuce, tomato, onions, peppers and salsa golf are optional and not always included on the chivito. The best chivitos, in my opinion, do include all these things. If you hate olives, just skip it. If you want to use another cheese, go for it. The traditional chivito contains the things I have listed but are free to be changed, based on your own preference.
How To Prepare:
Heat your oven to broil
In a skillet, cook the pancetta or bacon first over medium high heat. Whether using pancetta or regular bacon slices, brown it until crisp. Remove from pan.
Place your pounded grass fed beef steak in the bacon fat and cook quickly on both sides (you don’t want to make the meat tough). Tip: Pretty much anything cooked in bacon fat automatically makes it better.
Remove the beef and quickly sear the ham in the pan. Place cooked ham on top of beef and add mozzarella cheese.
Fry your egg according to how you like it. We like ours still a bit runny. Set egg aside. If you prefer hard boiled, have it chopped and ready to be assembled.
Add mozzarella cheese to the beef, bacon and ham. Put it under the broiler for about 2 minutes or until cheese melts.
To assemble the sandwich. Toast the bread if you like. Roasted peppers and lettuce get laid on the bottom half of the bun, followed by the meat (beef, bacon and ham) with the melted cheese on top. Slices of tomato, the chopped 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, if you like, is added.
This is no dainty finger sandwich, so grab a side of fries, an ice cold beer, a fork and knife and dig in!