Uruguay: A Small Country with a Grand Cuisine

By Mercer, Lisa | The World and I, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Uruguay: A Small Country with a Grand Cuisine


Mercer, Lisa, The World and I


As you hop from Argentina to Brazil, you might not notice that you stepped right over a small country with a big heart. Its name is Uruguay, and while it hides between these two giants of international tourism, it boasts a distinctive culture and cuisine worth experiencing.

A Culinary Mosaic

Population analysts estimate that 60 percent of the Uruguayan population has at least one ancestor from Spain, and 40 percent has at least one ancestor from Italy. Spain established a colony in Montevideo in 1726. Meanwhile, the Portuguese had already established Colonia in 1680. The two countries went to war. Spain won possession, but the Portuguese still influenced Uruguayan food culture. Chicken cooked with tomato sauce and peas epitomizes the Portuguese influence in Uruguayan cuisine.

The empanada was one of Spain's contributions to Uruguayan cuisine. Its name evolved from the Spanish verb empanar, which means to coat in bread. Uruguayan empanadas are made from baked or fried wheat flour, filled with combinations of meat, chicken, vegetables and cheeses. Dulche de leche, a caramel-like desert, fills the Uruguayan desert empanadas, which are topped with powdered sugar and apple jam.

Dulche de leche also plays a starring role in the Uruguayan alfajor, whose name stems from the Arabic al-hasu, meaning filled or stuffed. These sweets were a product of the Moorish occupation of Spain. The Uruguayan alfajore is made with dulce de leche sandwiched between to cookies and topped with powdered sugar.

Italy: For the Love of Pasta

Italian immigrants arrived in Uruguay during the 1900s. As active labor unionists, they helped reform Uruguayan work practices, and as superb chefs, they helped shape the Uruguayan culinary culture. Uruguayans have an affinity for pizza and pasta, which proves that the Italians never really left the country.

One particular type of pasta even has its own special day. Gnocchi, spelled noquis in Spanish, is a potato-based pasta, which Uruguayans eat on the 29th day of each month. The origins of this tradition are vague, but most people speculate that it's a throwback to the days when food was scarce by the end of the month, and flour and potatoes offered inexpensive nutrition. Placing a coin under your gnocchi plate apparently attracts prosperity.

Resembling a spinach pie, tarta pascualina originates from the Liguria section of Italy. While this meatless dish originated during lent, Uruguayans enjoy tarta pascualina all year round. The dish combines a crust, ricotta cheese, spinach and eggs, which represent the resurrection of Christ. All of the ingredients are placed in a crust and baked in the oven. When ready, the eggs are hard-boiled and baked directly into the pie.

Say Cheese: The Swiss

Italy and Spain played a key role in the development of Uruguayan gastronomy, but other cultures added spice to an already colorful food culture. …

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