If there’s one quintessential dish in Argentina, a food that makes an appearance in everyday Argentine life, it would have to be the choripán. I’ve shared a deep devotion for this humble sausage sandwich ever since I landed in Buenos Aires ten years ago. There’s just something about the juicy chorizo, a close relative to the hot dog, that made me fall in love instantly – perhaps it’s the absolute simplicity, or it could be the many years of tradition as a local staple, or its juicy inner goddess and charred smoky crust that always puts a spell on my stomach. No matter the reason, if socially acceptable, I’d marry this meat. Imagine my excitement when I was asked to judge the choripán competition at the World Choripán Festival in Córdoba. I’d get the prestigious honor of judging a real live sausage fest! Hell to the yes. Take me to chori-landia. But first, for the uninitiated, a choripán primer.
WHAT IS A CHORIPAN?
This popular dish consists of two simple ingredients: chorizo sausage “chori” and bread “pan”, and when you put those two words together, you get the country’s favorite on the go food. The choripán eating culture goes beyond race, religion and socioeconomic background; wherever there’s a crowd, you can bet there’s a makeshift grill nearby slinging these chorizo sandwiches. It’s cheap, quick, and incredibly tasty – at fútbol games, protests, parks, road stops, transport terminals, and perched outside nightclubs, a good chori is what makes the Argentine world go round.
The most important part of the choripán is, of course, the chorizo sausage. Forget what you know about sausages from around the world, because the Argentine style is its own animal. “The traditional Argentine chorizo is made up of 35 percent pork, 35 percent beef and 30 percent fat,” Ariel Argomaniz told me, a cook turned owner of AMICS Carnicería, a butcher shop in Palermo. “But every sausage is done differently. At AMICS, we make our chorizos with pork shoulder, beef brisket, and fatty cuts like bacon and pork cheek,” el carnicero, the butcher, explained.
Since no two chorizos are alike, the make up, quality, and taste of the encased meat will depend entirely on the recipe of its maker. While there are many who follow the traditional method, there are plenty of those who say the best Argentine sausages are made with pure pork, including fatty cuts like pork shoulder and pork belly. Some producers prefer the beef-pork combination, others an entirely beef version, and a few who try unique portrayals using alternative meats, like famed parrillas La Brigada’s wild boar chorizo and Don Julio’s experimental lamb chorizo. Since not all chorizos are created equal, poor quality sausages still exist – these are chorizos that are loaded with fat, often times filled with bits of unknown parts to keep production costs low.
Once the type of meat is selected and ratios chosen, it’s time to add the seasonings. Unlike international counterparts, there isn’t anything spicy about these Argentine bad boys. Most locals have sensitive spice palates, and sausage producers abstain from using strong seasonings that take away from the meatiness of the flavor. Instead, it’s more common to find subtle seasonings that enhance the meat, like non-spicy crushed red pepper, oregano, black pepper, nutmeg and white wine. After an even blend in a mixer, the filling is placed in a sausage maker. The final result: tubes of meat encased in intestine lining, and then linked individually where it hangs in the air like a stunning sausage wind chime.
BREAD, CHIMICHURRI —> ASSEMBLE
Chorizo aside, the pan comes next. What differentiates a great choripán from a good one is the bread, preferably fresh, toasted, and with the inside scooped out to make room for the sausage and condiments. Sadly, the majority of choripán slingers will ignore this vital step and use a stale roll that tends to disintegrate into a chalky powder with just one bite. But those who get it right, truly shine.
The chorizo is slapped on a grill over hot coals, butterflied down the middle, mariposa style, and placed inside the roll. Then, chimichurri sauce is slathered on top. The oregano, parsley, red pepper flake, vinegar and oil meat accompaniment can be made many different ways, and is typically placed on a communal countertop for self-service dressing. Of course, like any iconic sandwich, the variations of this classic are endless and every food truck, grill cart, kiosco, parrilla, and restaurant will add its unique personality and flavor.
THE WORLD SAUSAGE FEST
On a Saturday afternoon in March, Parque Sarmiento, the city of Córdoba’s main park, transformed into a massive barbecue pit with fifty grill carts each serving nearly 500 choripanes. Over 35,000 people gathered in the drizzling rain to celebrate, eating as many different versions of the sandwich as possible. Córdobeses (those who originate from Córdoba) claim to have invented the sandwich, so it’s only natural for the biggest sausage festival in South America to be held in Argentina’s mid-most province.
“If it’s not from Córdoba, it’s not a real choripán. We have the best here!” Celia Degiovanni, a local culinary personality and founder of the cooking institute Celia Escuela Integral Gastronomica told me as we each took a bite. We were standing in front of the park’s Choripán Monument, which is a statue/bench of a choripán. The happy crowds bounced around to the different sausage stands, and attendees visited the Choripán Museum – a tent filled with famous artwork, photographs and books, each photo-shopped to incorporate the great choripán inside the masterpiece.
THE CHORIPAN CONTEST
The choripán competition was the highlight of the festival where the carritos (barbecue carts) fought for the crown of choripán supreme. The stands were divided into three different sections where they competed for best in show: the World Choripán, the Classic Choripán, and the Gourmet Choripán. The variety was impressive, with all sorts of chorizos representing. A whole slew of classic sandwiches fought for the city’s bragging rights while the rest attempted to convert the general public with unique renditions including gluten free choripán, Middle Eastern choripán, choripizza, chori-roll, Thai choripán, German choripán, molecular choripán, choripán with nachos, and even a (blasphemous) vegan choripán.
The judges had the difficult task to taste each choripán and decide who would make it to the finals, and then go on to the 2016 winner’s circle. If you’ve never judged a choripán competition before, there are a few things you should keep in mind: take small bites, drink a lot of water, avoid big mouthfuls of bread, and no matter how good the choripán might taste, put it down after you have determined your ranking.
The World Choripán: While world really means other provinces in Argentina like Buenos Aires, Mendoza, and Neuquén, there was one competitor who traveled all the way from Holland.
Daniel Ferrada from Mendoza clenched the first place title for his choripán with aioli, shoestring potatoes, smoked tomatoes, and goat cheese. Ferrada’s chorizo was made with 100% all natural pork, and seasoned with salt, pepper, oregano, rosemary, thyme, chile peppers, and white wine from Mendoza. This was a controversial win as traditionalists frown down upon conjoining cheese with the choripán. But alas, taste always prevails.
Cornelis Den Breejen, also known as the Choripanman, received honorable mention for the Dutch-Argentine stand La Salita, which promoted “multiculturalism and culinary creativity”. Den Breejen, who fell in love with tango, the choripán, and Argentine culture, traveled all the way from the Netherlands where he runs a choripán food truck in Rotterdam.
The Classic Choripan: Twenty local carts from Córdoba showed off their goods, mostly consisting of fresh pork sausage and self-service condiments. Unlike other parts of Argentina where street food carts tend to serve a sorry selection of sad toppings, the carts in Córdoba shine with a magical rainbow of jarred sausage accessories, all lined up on display. The cast of supporting characters include pickled eggplant, pickled cabbage, pickled cucumbers, spicy peppers, salsa criolla and various levels of chimichurri spice.
Lukitas, a local choripán street food cart, reigned victorious with a classic pork sausage on a soft roll with lettuce and tomato, proof that the one that wins can be delicious simplicity.
The Gourmet Choripán: The city’s top restaurants also represented with a more modern version of the street food classic. Cooks and chefs stepped up with eclectic chori innovation: a German-style chorizo with apple sauerkraut, honey mustard, and a Merlot-berry reduction; a Middle Eastern chori on pita bread with tahini; choripizza served on cracker thin parrilla grilled dough; a beef chorizo wrapped in Phyllo dough and served with yogurt; and even a molecular choripán with nitrogen-salad, chimichurri air, and pierced with a hot sauce test tube. Restaurant and bar Late’s Thai inspired chorizo went home with the gold (my personal favorite) for their pork chorizo packed with cilantro, homemade pickles, sweet and spicy chile marmalade on homemade bread.