“Men would weep, priests would renounce their gods, children run crying to their mothers, but in Uruguay it is beloved, revered…” So Anthony Bordain, over sweeping classical music, introduces Uruguay’s national dish, the chivito.
For any true lover of sandwiches, there may well be weeping involved, but they will be tears of reverence and joy. This mighty sandwich, a shrine to carnivorous decadence, a scourge of arteries and vegetarians, is consumed in massive quantities daily throughout the country but particularly in the capital, Montevideo and nearby Punte del Este, where it originated.
One evening in 1940 Marcelo Gallardo, owner of a small beachfront restaurant called El Mejillon, faced with a request for a dish he didn’t have, did what any good chef would do – he winged it. The story goes that a tourist, probably Argentine, walked in and requested baby goat’s meat (the Spanish word for a baby goat is chivito), something she had tried in Córdoba and had thoroughly enjoyed. Marcelo, not surprisingly without baby goat meat lying conveniently at hand, whipped up a sandwich of buttered toasted bread, a thin slice of grilled beef and ham; the lady swooned, the rest is history.
El Mejillon at its peak is said to have kept two local butcheries in business with the sale of chivitos and was an icon of the Punta del Este promenade, or rambla as it is locally known, until the sixties when it closed up shop.
The best place to have a chivito is obviously on the streets of Montivideo, but the beauty of this monster of a sandwich is that it is easy to make at home. There are many varieties, but here is classic recipe:
- 1 good soft white sandwich bun (ciabatta)
- Salsa golf – a mixture of tomato sauce and mayonnaise
- A couple of slices of tomato
- A couple of finely sliced onion rings
- A red bell pepper
- A hard-boiled egg
- Mozzarella cheese
- A thinly sliced medallion of fillet steak (or any cut if choice – the ideal is a thin, tender piece of beef)
- 3 strips of pancetta
- 4 slices of smoked ham
Lightly toast you two halves of bread and then on the lower half spread a good dollop of the sauce, top with lettuce and strips of bell pepper. (If you take the trouble to roast and skin the pepper before, it would add an extra touch of spectacular) Fry the onion and pancetta together while heating up your griddle pan. When good and hot, toss on your steak (lightly pre-salted with coarse salt) and cook for about 1 1/2 minutes – depending on your cut and personal preference – turn it over (pause to admire those sexy seared lines on the meat) and layer the ham, bacon and onion mix, tomatoes, sliced boiled egg and cheese. Cover with a lid for the remaining cooking time (roughly another minute) to allow the cheese to melt. Carefully remove this pile of joy from the griddle pan and assemble your sandwich. Now figure out how to get it into your mouth. Enjoy.
Alternatively, cook the steak alone and then build up the layers on the bread. Place the completed sandwich – without the top – under the broiler (oven grill) until the cheese melts to your satisfaction. I prefer the previous method as it allows me to cook the steak just right and my lettuce stays nice and crisp. It is all in the little details.
Greg de Villiers, a South African food photographer and travel writer, lives – for now – in Buenos Aires. To see more of his work, visit: gregdevilliers.com. To find out more about his life philosophy, sit yourself down in the most beautiful place you can imagine, with the best bottle of wine you can find, and drink it all; slowly, lovingly but all of it, down to the very. last. drop.