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BUENOS AIRES (Reuters Life!) - Steaks are strictly off the menu at Sattva restaurant in Buenos Aires, an organic, meat-free eatery that caters to a rare breed of Argentine diner: the vegetarian.
In a country where there are more cows than people, beef is as much a part of national identity as tango and soccer.
"Here it is engraved in the subconscious that one has to eat meat," said German Coluccio, a 37-year-old vegetarian restaurateur who serves organic wine and quinoa at his trendy cafe, its green walls decorated with Buddha statues.
His restaurant has sprouted alongside a growing number of vegetarian cafes, associations and products as health-conscious Argentines fret about their waistlines and cholesterol levels.
Coluccio encourages his customers to think about where their food comes from, but it is a minority of Argentine vegetarians who choose to give up steak because of a sudden dedication to animal rights.
"Vegetarianism is growing in a striking manner," said Manuel Alfredo Marti, president of the Argentine Vegetarian Union (UVA), which he founded in 2000. "Being vegetarian is the healthy option ... we are what we eat."
Argentines are the world's biggest beef-eaters, consuming a record 70 kg (154 pounds) of beef per capita last year. Workmen often lunch at a makeshift barbecue on the sidewalk and a Sunday gathering around the grill is a national institution.
Though consumption of tofu has yet to reach those giddy heights, perceptions are changing.
"People used to ask me aggressively, 'What happened? Are you sick?'" Coluccio said of his days as a vegetarian teenager. But friends who once mocked him now beg him to prepare vegetarian buffets for birthday parties.
Meat-free dining has been lucrative for Carolina Guryn, who, with her husband, opened a second vegetarian cafe in February after the success of the original Artemisia restaurant.
"Vegetarian food used to be synonymous with tastelessness, blandness and lack of personality," said Guryn, who added that as a child she was embarrassed to invite friends over for lunch because of her family's wholefood, vegetarian diet.
"Now people are seeking out vegetarian food," said Guryn, whose restaurant in the stylish Palermo neighborhood serves typical South American fare such as pumpkin stew and potato pies.
Argentina remains one of the world's biggest beef exporters, but farmers say the country's rich ranching heritage is at risk from the relentless spread of soy plantations.
Almost all Argentina's soybeans are shipped abroad, but some local entrepreneurs are tapping into this newfound source of protein and selling the virtues of soy to local shoppers.
Frozen-food brand Mondo Frizzatta launched a new line of soy-filled escalopes last month, trying to tempt consumers away from the beef escalopes that are a staple of the Argentine diet.
"Traditionally, a soy escalope is seen as a sacrifice," said Jose Robledo, a director at the company that owns Mondo Frizzatta. "People make a strange face and say 'I don't think I'd like that.'"
In an effort to change people's minds, the company has set up sampling stands in supermarkets.
"It's strategic," he added. "We have an opportunity to reach out to people who are already vegetarian but are a new market for us."
One of them is Florencia Dorso, 28, a business assistant who gave up meat three years ago and is still struggling to convince her skeptical friends and relatives of the benefits of going without the nation's favorite food.
"Everyone wants me to eat meat," she said. "I go to a barbecue and no one can believe it ... but I go because there's so much salad these days."
Editing by Helen Popper and Paul Casciato