When Natalie Tarleton, owner of Milkhouse Kurnell cafe in Sydney's southeast, visited her mother's homeland of Uruguay, she noticed that vendors sold chivito on nearly every street corner.
Tarleton tells SBS Food, "It's not like over here where you have to search for it and find it out. It's just everywhere over there and they're all amazing."
When eating her first chivito in Uruguay at age 12, Tarleton did not think that she'd one day be serving this sandwich at her very own café. The chivito is one of Uruguay's national dishes and there are as many variations of it as the people who make it. The simplest version, known widely as chivito común or common chivito, consists of a toasted bun layered with thinly sliced beef steak (churrasco), mozzarella, tomatoes, lettuce and a fried or boiled egg. Ham, bacon, olives and pickles are common additions, as well as salsa golf – a popular mix of tomato sauce and mayonnaise.
Tarleton easily recalls the first time she ate a chivito. It was during her first visit to Uruguay and she had been eager to try it after seeing it almost everywhere. "We sat down in a restaurant and ordered one, and it was probably big enough to feed the four of us," she laughs.
Tasting it was a monumental experience and has been a staple meal ever since.
Although born in Australia, Tarleton says she resonates more with her Uruguayan heritage. Her mother, Elisabeth, was raised in Montevideo, Uruguay, and arrived in Sydney when she was 18. She came in search of a better life and was shortly followed by her parents who wanted to help raise their grandchildren.
Cooking was a huge part of their life in Uruguay and it's how her family connects to its roots.
"Food is just their way of life," Tarleton explains. "It's all about the food, it's all about family and it's just about that experience of being together and sharing a meal."
"It's all about the food, it's all about family and it's just about that experience of being together and sharing a meal."
The kitchen has long been Tarleton's favourite room in the house and as a child, she would sit at the bench watching her mother and grandmother, Lala, cook all sorts of traditional dishes. She was a fast learner and enjoyed helping roll empanadas, fry croquettes or flip tortillas.
"We had such a beautiful life growing up," Tarleton says. "It was a beautiful loving environment, always happy and always full of food and culture."
Tarleton loved her family's weekend tradition of gathering for an asado. This South American woodfire barbecue was a meat lover's paradise, which consisted of chorizo, lamb, pork and ribs. Preparations were a whole family affair that began in the morning and ended with celebrations late in the night.
"Even now when I smell it, it takes me back to those barbecues," Tarleton says. "Just spending the whole day with the family and eating and lazing around and eating again."
Tarleton has never been prouder of her Uruguayan heritage and is doing everything she can to hold on to it. "Those traditions never really leave you," she says.
Her favourite way to keep her family's Uruguayan spirit alive is by sharing it with everyone who walks in the door of her quaint and cosy Milkhouse Kurnell cafe.
"What I set out to do is to be able to have a little space for people to come and have these delicacies that we had...the traditional foods," Tarleton explains.
The menu at Milkhouse is seasonal and inspired by the flavours of Uruguay. She serves the same comfort dishes that her mum made for her growing up and has evolved to include other South American favourites, such as empanada, salami schiacciata, choripan, cubano and churros.
On the last Sunday of every month before the COVID-19 pandemic, Tarleton ran a street food festival, which was an opportunity to showcase the best of her cuisine.
"The idea was basically just to give people the experience of what I had when we grew up," she explains. "We had all of those delicious foods and we had beautiful music, and everyone would congregate out the front. We'd have streamers and balloons for the kids, and it would just be a stand around the event where you'd grab your empanada or chivito and meet people."
One of their best-sellers was the traditional chivito, which Tarleton would make using her mum's signature recipe. She hopes to continue finding new ways to share her culture with those near and far and is currently focused on passing these traditions on to her three sons.
"I love what I do and if I can do it by sharing all those beautiful memories and knowledge that I had growing up, then that's a plus for me," she concludes.
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Photographs by Natalie Tarleton.
- 110 g sliced scotch fillet
- 1 good quality slice of leg ham
- 1 fresh milk bun
- 1 egg
- 2 thin slices of Swiss cheese
- Green olives, chopped
- Tomato and lettuce, sliced
- Whole egg mayonnaise
- Tomato sauce, olive oil and butter
- Salt the scotch fillet and rub with a small amount of olive oil.
- Heat a frypan with a little oil. Cook the steak for 2 minutes on each side then set aside.
- Slice the bun in half and place it face down on the hot pan for a quick minute to toast.
- Fry the egg – make sure that it's runny.
- Assemble the chivito by spreading butter on the milk bun and layering on the ingredients in the following order: mayonnaise, tomato sauce, lettuce, tomato, olives, ham, steak, egg and cheese. Make sure the cheese is placed on the hot steak or egg.