It is not easy being a vegetarian in Uruguay – one of the largest exporters of meat in the world.

“In Uruguay, they laugh at vegetarians, they think we are weird,” says Laura Lacurcia, with a sigh.

The South American country has a peculiar claim to fame – it has three times more cows (10 million) than people (three million) – and is proud of its reputation as a carnivore’s paradise.

So when the UN warned recently that red meat “probably” poses a cancer risk, many Uruguayans merely shrugged.

“If someone wants to eat Uruguayan food and they are vegetarian, they are in trouble,” joked Gustavo Laborde, an anthropologist and author of a book on the “ritual” that is the barbecue.

Non-meat eaters like Lacurcia have a tough time in the capital, which has a population of 1.5 million but is almost devoid of vegetarian or vegan restaurants.

Uruguayan asado with achuras (offal) and sausages. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Gonzalo Velasco

Titina Nunez, of gourmet magazine Placer, says there are a mere handful of vegetarian restaurants in the city.

“It is very hard for Uruguayans to avoid pizza or barbecue and there is a long way to go for us to get to gourmet levels,” she said.

“When a Mexican or Japanese restaurant opens, they end up adding local meat dishes to their menu because if they don’t, they close down.”

Lacurcia became a vegan out of concern for animal welfare. She brushes of the incredulous reaction she invariably draws.

“You have to be very tolerant and laugh it off or ignore it,” she said, smiling. “People regard us as strange beasts.”

Her choice certainly sets her apart from the average Uruguayan, who chomps through nearly 60kg of beef a year – over 20kg more than the average French person, for example.

An unmistakable smell wafts through the capital every Sunday that of the barbecue, which is central to family gatherings.

When a Uruguayan real estate agent takes prospective buyers to an apartment, first on his list of amenities to point out is the barbecue on the terrace.

Only after that will talk turn to other, secondary matters, such as the size of the place.

mindy eat steak

Nor can you mistake the smell of barbecue on the sidewalks, where workers set up improvised grills at lunch time.