In Buenos Aires, a brave few go veggie

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Agostina Senese is a vegetarian in a country where cooking beef on the grill is considered a sacred rite.

"It's like you're doing something really wrong if you don't eat meat here — it's like a like a sin," says Senese.

It's not easy to go vegetarian in the world's biggest beef-eating nation. Traditional barbecues are the signature event of most weekends and holidays — one that Senese feels left out of. "I don't have friends that are vegetarians so it's really really difficult for me."

But it's getting easier. Vegetarians like Senese are finding support among a new generation of groceries, markets and businesses catering to the small but burgeoning community of vegetarians in Buenos Aires.

At the Almacen Casero, there aren't any tables, just shelves stacked with whole grains and coolers with vegetarian entrees for people to carry home. Behind the counter stacked with cereal bars, store owner Maria Magdalena consoles Senese.

"In the beginning, you'll find it very lonely," Magdalena says. " But you'll get to to know more people and the people around you start to adapt."

Magdalena sounds like a therapist, but she's a pioneering entrepreneur. She and her husband opened up their vegetarian grocery only three months ago in Almagro, a squarely working middle-class neighborhood in Buenos Aires.

Maria Magdalena's store seems like a leap of faith in the carnivore capital of the world. Last year, the average Argentine ate 154 pounds of beef — that's about two servings of beef everyday for the 365 days in the year. And typically Argentines don't make space for vegetables on their plates.

Magdalena concedes it's a challenge, but she's still betting on the growth of vegetarianism here. "Our ancestors, the gauchos, butchered the cows and ate the meat. It's a tradition that's deeply rooted in our culture. Why do people change things? Well they do it because everything changes," she says.

A lot has changed in Argentina, particularly since the economic crisis in 2001. That's when many say vegetarianism first made its entrance in Buenos Aires. The overhead to maintain large meat freezers became expensive and an influx of health-conscious foreigners transformed the cosmopolitan restaurant scene.

"Suddenly vegetarianism started making sense," said Angelita Bianculli, owner of La Esquina de Flores, the city's first vegetarian restaurant, which opened in 1983. "I trained people how to use soy in 2001, when we were doing so bad economically."

Nevertheless, vegetarian eateries like La Esquina de Flores thrive primarily in upscale neighborhoods like Palermo, where many expats like to live and vegetarian cuisine is fashionable in restaurants.

While keeping a vegetarian diet is often cheaper than eating beef, that's not necessarily the case in Argentina where the government controls the price of beef. In the past three years, beef has been cheaper than empanadas or even pizza.

But beef prices have soared in the last two months, as the country faces herd shortages and the prospect of importing cattle for the first time in decades. With inflation soaring and a severe drought, on top of the government's price caps, cattle farmers began liquidating their herds. Many started planting soy crops, which recorded yields this year. Dubbed the "green gold," soy has become Argentina's top export, driven in part by increasing demand in China.

And a "milanesa de soja" — Italian-style breaded soy patty — is commonly found in Argentine restaurants alongside the traditional beef and chicken versions.

With vegetarian food becoming more common on the restaurant scene, entrepreneurs are hoping the trend can make its way into Argentine kitchens.

Marcelo Barraza is starting a homemade vegetarian frozen food delivery service after having worked in an organic vegetable company. "I realized it was a great business opportunity in the long run," he said.

"There is a demand," agreed Fenando Baz, owner of Jardin Organico, which sells organic foods and vegetables in Buenos Aires. "Maybe 60 to 70 percent of my clients are vegetarians." And he says his company is growing about 20 percent every year.

The country has the resources to support growing domestic demand for vegetarian and health food. Argentina's pampas are famous for producing grass-fed beef, but the length of the country allows it to grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, similar to California. Argentina is currently is the world's second largest producer of organic vegetables per acre after Australia, but most of it is exported.

Still creating a strong domestic market for those vegetables is a question of changing not just the Argentine diet, but also a fundamental characteristic of its culture.

Back at Almacen Casero, Maria Magdalena isn't counting on raking in the profits just yet. "I don’t know if a great future but there is a future. The idea isn't to become rich."

Yet something is definitely stirring to give her quiet confidence in her new business. In an eight-block radius of her grocery, one can find two more vegetarian groceries and several restaurants with "comida vegetariana" written on the windows.

"We're in Almagro — a middle class neighborhood and it's starting to be accepted, " says Magdalena sipping mate tea as customers casually peak in the door." We can even see it in our own families: they are already making some room when they make a barbecue. This is going to grow. It's going to grow. "