Two completely separate Argentine male friends have asked me if I was “making up” the term vegan in recent weeks. I was surprised that the concept is really so alien to your average Argentine, and I would like to think I don’t move in such milanga-con-fritas circles. One was incredulous at the idea that a person could survive without eating any animal products at all.
Now I don’t fall into the category of being vegan myself, but the more I read about how food is produced in Argentina – a country that prides itself on the romantic image of cows roaming freely around the Pampas with a couple of mate-drinking gauchos moving them on every now and then, whilst the reality is that 79-90% of the beef consumed in Argentina’s towns and cities comes from feedlots – the more I am inclined to move my palate into new plains.
But with inflation ever on the rise, eating out in Argentina is turning into something that is more of a ‘treat’ than a regular occurrence, and so instead of risking my hard-earned pesos on something that might not be up to scratch, what better way to dive into the unknown than by learning how to make some alternative dishes myself?
Máximo Cabrera’s cooking classes to the rescue! Unlike his aforementioned compatriots, this chef and owner of Kensho restaurant is more than familiar with the term ‘vegan’, as he has been living as one for the best part of the last decade and is happy to help the curious to learn some culinary skills in the vegan, gluten-free, and raw food areas. If you think this all sounds a bit socks-and-sandals, think again. The attendees are a varied mixture of people – some were following vegetarian diets, one was a celiac, but the majority were just curious to learn and expand their culinary horizons.
In the class I attended, we learned to make a vegan chocolate ice cream, which, through the use of cashew and hazelnuts – and their creamy milk – tasted like a frozen tub of Nutella. We also made wheat-free pancakes and blinis, using a batter made with chickpeas and yamani rice, which would have gone perfectly with a big tub of dulce de leche. We made a creamy mushroom curry, almond milk we had made to improve the texture, and had I not participated in the cooking, but only the tasting, I would have sworn that someone had cheated and added cream. The class was participatory, with everybody getting involved in the chopping, toasting, and pancake flipping – although ample time is given for questions on techniques, modifications of the recipes for special dietary needs, and other questions. Máximo is free and generous with his knowledge too, giving advice from what kind of blender is the best to buy, to where to buy the ingredients wholesale.
The classes take place in a beautiful house in Colegiales, complete with an extensive organic garden that some of the herbs and ingredients are picked from. And at the end of the class came the best part – the tasting, which was around a large table in the patio. The atmosphere made for more of a relaxed meal than a nibble, shared with the other participants, now comrades after a couple of hours sweating over a hot stove together, and during which ideas, techniques, and recipes were discussed.
As part of the international Slow Food network, Máximo aims to not only teach cooking, but also encourages participants to re-think their food, and promotes the use of local, organic, seasonal products, which give producers a fair price. It is a philosophy he carries around proudly, something he believes strongly in – he calls his ideals “a kind of religion”. But he refuses to preach – and is fervently against the idea of this being some “fundamentalist” thing: he is not trying to turn anybody vegan. In fact, he says that if someone who is not vegan would not want to eat what he makes at his restaurant, then he will have failed in what he is trying to achieve – the idea is not that this should be all brown rice and tasteless veggies, but food of a standard to compete with non-specialised restaurants, thus encouraging new products into participants’ diets, and moving them away from the overly-consumed ‘three white poisons’ of white flour, sugar, and dairy.
The class I attended was the final class in a series of four classes, and participants had previously learned how to make cashew cheese, vegan yoghurt, mushroom ceviche, raw cheesecake, and a variety of other things. Each class will teach around three new recipes or techniques.
Lead image courtesy of Kensho.