Food in Ecuador: Sierra, Costa, Oriente

Ecuador is really small and yet it is so varied; the differences of culture, language and social cues extend even to each of the country’s regional cuisines. How one dish is prepared in one region or province can be radically different from another; moreover dishes that are eaten in some places are looked at negatively in other places. Yet one year in the country has taught me that many dishes also exist that are universally loved and transcend preconceived notions between the serranos and costeños of Ecuador. Though one thing is certain, everyone here seems to love huge mountains of rice.

In the Sierra many dishes revolve around carbs due in part to their cheap and filling nature. Some dishes date back to indigenous times while others mix Spanish and indigenous influence. The versatility and great variety of potatoes of the country are used to their full potential with most sierra dishes including some aspect of them.

  • Locro, meaning soup in the Kichwa dialect, is one of the staple dishes of the region with potatoes being one of the main ingredients. There is no shortage of varieties with  cheese, cabbage, onions, avocado, different types of meat, pumpkin..ect. as potential ingredients. One of the more “adventurous” types of locro is yaguarlocro (blood soup) which is commonly eaten in predominantly indigenous cities of Otavalo and Cotacachi. The hearty nature of the soup paired with the spiced dried blood that almost resembles morcilla (blood sausage) in taste is perfect for the cold Andean weather.
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Yaguarlocro, blood soup
  • Llapingachos, yet another potato heavy dish is typical of the mountain region but also have consumption on the coast. Typically it involves boiled potatoes formed into pancakes and then cooked once more on a griddle to form a crispy crust while retaining a soft interior. They originate from the city of Ambato whose version includes avocado, chorizo, a fried egg and some lettuce. Other versions are served with  pork, beef, beets and on the coast they are typically eaten with a peanut sauce that is reminiscent of unsweetened peanut butter.
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Ambato’s llapingachos
  • Prior to Spain’s conquest, pigs did not exist in the new world so dishes such as hornado are rooted in Spanish cuisine. In effect hornado is a suckling pig, slowly roasted until the skin is nice and crispy while the meat becomes juicy and imbued with the flavors of its marinade. In execution, it is similar to the Spanish dish cochinillo though the marinade is one of cumin, garlic, achiote and onion rather than the Spanish wine, cloves and pepper. In virtually all local markets from Quito to Riobamba and even parts of the coast, hard-working women can be found offering samples of the delectable meat as a way of convincing hungry potential customers that theirs is the best. It is almost always accompanied by mote (hominy) but can also come with yuca, potatoes or fava beans.
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Hornado ladies in Riobamba
  • Fritada is a very heavy dish due to being  pork chunks fried in the same fat of the pig. Like hornado, it traces its roots to the colonial era and is commonly eaten with mote. The inclusion of choclo (corn), cheese, boiled potatoes or onions as side dishes varies from region to region. In terms of taste it’s not bad but not my favorite hing in the world, they taste like the Mexican dish carnitas but due to toughness, not as good.
  • Cuy is considered to be a delicacy in much of the Andes from Ecuador to Bolivia. Yet it is relegated mainly to the sierra due in part to the indigenous origins of the dish who did not eat meat regularly aside from these fast reproducing critters and other small game. On the coast most people regard guinea pigs as pets and would not be willing to eat the dish but this sentiment is not shared in the sierra.When cooked properly, as was the case when I ate one by myself in Cuenca, they have crispy skin and soft meat that reminded me of mixture of chicken thigh and pork. They can be expensive to buy with one being upwards of $20 in a country where meals rarely go above $3 thus they are reserved mainly for celebrations such as weddings, anniversaries or city festivals. As usual they are served with different sides but potatoes are the norm.
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An expensive guinea pig meal, all to myself
  • Humitas, a traditional  dish where corn flour is the main ingredient is derivative of the mesoamerican tamal. Typically the mesoamerican version uses corn leaves to wrap the corn flour as they are steamed. Ecuador along with several South American nations adopted a version of the tamal that they call humita which tends to have a sweeter corn base and does not include the pork fat of Mexican and Central American versions. In Ecuador they mainly only contain cheese as an additive. In contrast a different version, the hallaca uses corn and plantains and is wrapped in plantain leaves with the filling being anything from chicken to fish and the inclusion of pork fat in the mixture.

The dishes of the coast rely heavily on the bounty of the Pacific Ocean with most dishes including some form of seafood. The most reputable of the coastal cuisines is that of Esmeraldas and Manabi provinces which are heavily influenced by Afro-descendants with a substantial usage of peanuts and garlic. Other coastal provinces alsom make use of agricultural output, especially in the form of rice and plantains.

  • Encebollado is a favorite of Ecuadorians regardless of one lives but the dish can often have a different way of preparation. The sem-sweet and salty fish stew is named for its heavy handed use of pickled red onions. While the most common fish used is albacore which gives it its characterisitc flavor, technically any fish can be used; tuna, bacalao and bonito varities exist in different parts of the country. Guayas and Los Rios claim origin of the dish which was very recently created in the 1960s but its status as a breakfast food to cure hangovers has garnered it countrywide appeal. Aside from onions and yuca, cilantro, cumin, garlic and sometimes even orange are added to give a more robust flavor. Often the stew is eaten with fried plantain, rice, bread or popcorn.

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  • Encocado is a coconut rich seafood stew that can be prepared with anything from shrimp to the prized and versatile fish corvina. This dish from Esmeraldas relies on fresh coconuts laboriously prepared to make a sauce base for the stew. The process takes a log time and many of the secrets to its prepaation are closely guarded by the regions’ Afro-Ecuadorian families. The mixture of sweet and salty makes for an excellent dish that blends American ingredients with African cooking techniques for a truly exeptional experience.
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Encocado from Guayaquil’s Caraguay Market
  • Cangrejos (crabs) are harvested for certain periods of time in the prvinces of Mnabi and Esmeraldas as well as parts of Guayas. In Guayquil massive fishing boats dock at seafood markets like Mercado Caraguay to sell freshly caught live crabs. While there are many ways in which crabs can be prepared and they are often used in other dishes, for many there is nothing like boiling some crabs and cracking them open. The sweet meat of the crab is paired well with the boiling water flavored with oregano, tomatoes, garlic and a myriad of other spices depending on someone’s taste.
  • Some form of ceviche was consumed by people in Peru thousands of years before the arrival of Spaniards though the modern version of the dish traces its roots to Moors from Granada that arrived in the colonial era. While different countires in the region add their own flair and ingredients to ceviche, in Ecuador some of the most popular versions are shrimp and concha (oyster) marinated in lots of lemon and lime along with onion and tomato. In Manabi peanuts are used to give the ceviche a different flavor while others add tomato sauce to give an almost cocktail type taste.
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Squid ceviche from Santa Elena
  • While in Spain a menestra is a type of vegetable stew, Ecuador refers to beans as menestra. For some reason or other eating beans is more prevalent on the coast where meat, rice and beans make up the trinity of any good almuerzo (lunch). Typically canario beans, lentils and black beans can be used too, are cooked at high heat for several hours along with tomato, achiote, garlic, cumin and onion until they begin to break apart. All of these
  • Bollo another Esmeraladas inspired dish relies heavily on the usage of mashed plantain filled spread on a leaf and filled with fish, usually albacore. The secret of a good bollo though is in the correct usage of spices in forming the plantain base, without which this breakfast food does not reach its full potential. It is a rather heavy dish though and many eat it in the evening instead due to its filling and hearty nature.

The Oriente or Amazon of Ecuador has few large cities, with even the largest having little more than 10,000 inhabitants. As such there has always been a need to make the best use of the region’s ingredients and not be wasteful. With a large amount of dishes still deeply rooted in indigenous communities and traditional ways of preparation, the Oriente is the least influenced by the Spanish presence though large cities do have ample options for visitors. In the city of Tena one can expect to always have guayusa tea, a locally grown leaf, served alongside food in contrast to the rest of the country where beverages, even water, costs extra.

  • Maito is perhaps the best example of Amazonian cooking in that it highlights the ingenuity of the country’s people. Tilapia or chicken is wrapped up with bijao leaves and put on a grill to steam with its own juices. By doing so the maito retains much of the flavor and leaves the meat to be tender and soft. Our meal was served with yuca as well as typical onion and tomato garnish. Despite its simple preparation, maito is a delicious meal that definitely is a nice change from the usual fried food of Ecuador.
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A delicious plate of maito
  • Chontacuros are big worms that look like giant maggots but are a great source of protein in an area where traditionally food was hard to come by. Many indigenous groups harvest these creatures by cutting a palm tree and leaving it for the chontacuros to eat. Within months the tree is full of these worms and they are then harvested for eating. I’m no stranger to eating weird creatures and I was excited at the opportunity. Surprisingly the taste of the roasted worm was not bad at all, though it was a bit chewy the taste was similar to that of chicharron (pork rinds). I would recommend at least trying it if given the chance.
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Nasty looking little creatures but they’re not bad

I still haven’t found food that is particularly spicy though.

 

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