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In Buenos Aires, a brave few go veggie

Try giving up meat in the world's biggest beef-eating nation.

Maria Magdalena counsels budding vegetarian Agostina Senese in the Amacen Casero, a new vegetarian grocery in the Almagro neighborhood of Buenos Aires. (GlobalPost)

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.