Working my way around various eateries in Salta city, enamoured of the goat’s cheeses and the tasty, meaty tamales slathered in hot sauce, one menu item kept on popping up to grab my attention: llama.
Obviously not a whole one, but steaks of, this camelid is a popular alternative to beef up in the north-west, and the closer to the Bolivian border one gets, the larger the variety of llama offerings at restaurants.
I was gagging to try it, and although I would normally wince and then gag (in the other way) at the thought of munching on a fluffy little bunny, for example, that’s not to say I haven’t done so. And so although a hunk of llama served up on a plate could actually offend me, frankly I needed to give it a go.
Indulging a waiter in some dialogue, I had asked for a llama steak at a place in Salta but they recommended I waited until I reached Jujuy to try it out. That was advice that I took. Buying coca leaves before I attempted to drive more than 4,100 metres above sea level were words of wisdom I forgot to heed, which is why my head popped in a most absurd manner somewhere around Purmamarca.
And so it was in San Salvador de Jujuy, capital of that northern province, oh so close to the Tropic of Capricorn, that I tucked into llama for the first time.
Although cuts haven’t become so popular on European shores quite yet, given that ostrich is favoured as the latest trendy meat for being high in protein but low in fat, it turns out that llama isn‘t quite as popular as I had expected it to be.
A chat with Walter, the son of the owners of Pan de Azúcár, an architect who designed the interior of this newish restaurant a few blocks from the centre of S.S. de Jujuy, revealed that he doesn’t feast on this succulent alternative to beef every day of the week, or even once a week. It transpires that it is simply used as marketing tool for curious visitors.
Granted, the llama has adapted rather well to the region following its migration over the equator from North America around three million years ago, so one could be forgiven for thinking that llama burgers, llama milanesas and the like were common or garden fodder in the north-west.
Wrong. Walter told me he rarely eats llama, it isn’t a meat that turns up regularly on butchers’ hooks, and it is also a bit pricey so your average jujeño won’t be slapping it between two slices of bread and some wilted (because of the heat and altitude) lettuce at the Sunday asado. In fact, it is specially ordered in by savvy chefs in order to satisfy the gastronomic curiosities of we foreign sorts.
Other food stuffs more frequently found on local Jujuy menus include the nutty grain quinoa, what I would call new potatoes, those small tasty numbers that are referred to as Andean potatoes and cost a fortune in Buenos Aires, and of course my personal favourite, goat‘s cheese. In fact back in Salta, I may have overdosed on it as I couldn’t touch it for 48 hours at one point. Didn‘t stop me from snapping up four for 40 pesos from the Posta de las Cabras farm on the road between Cafayate and Salta city, though, did it.
So, my first llama. Pan de Azúcár has various dishes including stew and empanadas filled with llama meat, but I went whole hog and chose the fillet steak. Two were served up, medium rare as requested, accompanied by a sunny fried egg, fried green peppers and a vat of Andean potatoes. That was a lot of food fried in butter, but mixed up with the meat’s natural juices, it didn’t appear to taste too unhealthy despite appearances. Needless to say, not all of it could be rounded off. Regardless, I thanked the Pachamama for giving me the llama, lighter than beef but more robust and red meat-like than chicken, and polished off both succulent steaks.
Pan de Azúcar, Senador Pérez 110, S.S. de Jujuy
La posta de las cabras, National Route 68, KM88
Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on November 20, 2011