Categorized | Expat, TOP STORY

Dreaming of a Porteño Christmas: A Foreigner’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays


Spending the holidays in a foreign country may seem like a daunting prospect. Not knowing the ins and outs of local tradition, coupled with the added stress (or relief…we’re not judging) of being far from family may tempt you to block up your eyes and ears and try to forget the season altogether.

Plaza Alvear Christmas (Photo by Beatrice Murch)

Such does not have to be the case! Whether you are spending the holidays with local friends or family and want to know what to expect, or are trying to best celebrate the season with what the city has to offer, we at The Indy have put together a few suggestions on how to survive the festivities.

Spend Them with Locals

If you’re lucky enough to have Argentine family, good friends, or a significant other, congratulations – you can expect an authentic local holiday full of food, presents, and fireworks (that’s right, fireworks!).

Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena, is in many ways a bigger deal than Christmas Day, and although activities may vary slightly from family to family, a typical evening will include dinner – probably an asado – with loved ones, fireworks at midnight, a veritable montón of desserts, and finally, gift-giving.

Traditional dishes include pionono (tuna, chicken, or ham rolled up into thin bread), stuffed tomatoes, roasted chicken, matambre (flank steak with herbs and egg), and vitel toné, an Italian dish of veal smothered in cream sauce with capers.

Presents are put out and the dessert table is set while the children are distracted by the fireworks and globos, paper lanterns lit with candles and sent up into the night sky. Dessert consists of pan dulce (think Italian panettone, or fruitcake), nougat, and candied nuts. If you’re invited to spend the holidays with locals, pan dulce is a common gift.

You might think, after all the food and excitement, that everyone would straggle off to bed to slip into a beef-and-nougat-induced coma. Think again. Most young people, after saying goodnight to their families, will head out to one of the city’s many boliches, which actually stay open later on Christmas and New Year’s Eves. So if you had always dreamed of celebrating the birth of Christ packed cheek-by-jowl on a sweaty dance floor, that option is available to you too.

Christmas Day is a quiet affair, spent relaxing with family and friends in the air conditioning, eating leftovers… and regaining the strength to do it all again on New Year’s Eve.

Obelisco Gobierno de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires (Photo by Beatrice Murch)

On Your Own – Not as Sad as it Sounds!

So you are a hapless expat or tourist in Buenos Aires, the oppressive heat has addled your brain to such an extent that you forgot it’s actually December, and you find yourself with no holiday plans. Your Argentine acquaintances have all fled to the suburbs without you, so the cosy traditional Navidad described above is out of the question (and Januca – Hanukkah – is not looking so good, either).

All is not lost. Jew or gentile, it is still possible to enjoy the holiday season.

If it’s a tree you’re after, don’t plan on finding a real one (and if you do, it will cost you). Most of the big supermarkets (Disco, Carrefour, Dia, etc.) carry big selections of artificial trees, as well as decorations. Trees traditionally go up on 8th December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. If you can hold off buying one till after that date, you’ll probably get a discount.

As for menorahs, the traditional Jewish neighbourhoods of Once or Abasto should satisfy any Hebraic shopping needs, and are home to a wealth of kosher restaurants (check Guia Oleo for options and hours). The city also sponsors a municipal menorah lighting each year at Plaza San Martin, and the Argentine branch of Chabad-Lubavitch, located in Barrio Norte, is a good place to find out what events are going on in the Jewish community.

As for holiday meals, we recommend trying your hand at a traditional Argentine favourite (see box out) and ending the night with a nice cool glass of sidra (grown-up apple juice) beneath the firework-flecked sky. For the cooking-averse, restaurants are open on Christmas and New Year’s Eves, but be warned – the holiday menus are expensive and you should make reservations well in advance, as dining out for the holidays is common among Argentines.

However you spend them, we at The Indy wish you the very happiest of holidays!

Vitel toné recipe

(Because nothing says ‘Christmas’ like veal covered in tuna sauce)

Serves 4
Prep time – 1 hour

Cooking time – 15-30 mins

600 grams rump steak (‘peceto’ in Spanish)

3 Tbs. oil

1 cup ground spices (parsley, thyme, and rosemary)

Salt and pepper to taste

1 can tuna

3 cups mayonnaise

2 Tbs. capers

¼ cup white wine

1 cup cream

½ cup vegetable or fish broth

1 bulb garlic

1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp. tabasco sauce

Chopped cilantro to taste

1. Set the oven on high heat. Season the steak with the herbs, salt and pepper and place in an oven-proof pan with the oil. Cook for 25 minutes, rotating the meat so that if browns on all sides, and allow to cool.

2. Blend the tuna, mayonnaise, capers, white wine, cream, and broth.

3. Peel the garlic. Add it to the blender with the Worcestershire and tabasco sauce, and blend again.

4. Cut the steak into thin slices and place them in a deep serving dish. Cover with the tuna sauce and garnish with extra capers and chopped cilantro. Place in the refrigerator for at least 10 minutes before serving.

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