Isaac Placke is a sophomore with a Spanish major. He is traveling to Cuenca, Ecuador from March till May 2012. Follow his Spring Quarter journey abroad here and also find him on Twitter, @iketom91.
Well, I have already halfway completed this travel abroad experience in Ecuador and so far I have been incredibly lucky to sample some incredibly delicious Ecuadorean fare. Here I’ve selected a couple of my favorites to share with you. But, before we delve into food, here is some brief background information on some of the customs that many Ecuadoreans, specifically Cuencans, have for mealtimes:
Like in the states, Ecuadorean meal habits vary from family to family, but customarily, breakfasts are treated as a more important occasion than I am accustomed to. Instead of just eating cereal and coffee or tea, or skipping breakfast altogether, most families have a large breakfast normally with eggs, fresh fruit juice, yogurt, coffee or tea, and, of course, the freshly baked pancitos that are sold on nearly every street corner in Cuenca.
For Ecuadoreans, lunch surpasses dinner as the largest and most important meal of the day. For lunch, most schools let out for an hour or two to allow students to head home for to eat or to one of the small restaurants nearby where they can get lunch for $2.50. At home, the mother of the house, who in many Cuencan homes is still responsible for all the cooking and the cleaning up afterward, normally prepares lunch around noon, this time of year often accompanied by a daily afternoon rain. Served with a bowl of soup and fruit juice first, followed by a plate of rice, yucca, potatoes, and meat, the meal is deceptively simple. In all my travels I can honestly say that the most delicious, satisfying meal that I have eaten during my stay here has been this soup and plate of rice combination prepared and served by my host mom. So good in fact, that despite questioning glances of the other men in the house, I help with the dishes afterward.
Later in the day, dinner is served late, if at all, and ranges from a small plate of rice and soup to just coffee and bread to have conversation over. Most restaurants are closed by what most northern americans would consider dinnertime, a few remaining open catering to foreigners like me still not adapted to the Ecuadorean meal schedule.
Now on to the actual food.
Because of its location right on the equator, fruits and vegetables grow incredibly well and in great varieties here including more well known to me fruits such as mangoes, oranges, bananas, apples, and peaches. However in the first month of my stay here, I stumbled across upon a fruit that I had never tried before at least once a day, many growing in the front yards of the houses on my walk to classes. Here are a couple of my favorites:
Tomate de arbol. Native to the Andes, these taste like a cross between a tomato and a peach. Literally meaning “tree tomato” this fruit is most commonly blended along with some water and sugar to make a delicious juice.
Lichi. Sold in baskets and wheelbarrows on many of Cuenca’s streetcorners, this one looks a bit daunting, but past the hairy looking outside is a large seed and a juicy inside that tastes a lot like a grape.
Granadilla. This is one of the more interesting fruits I’ve tasted here. Though I haven’t seen it made into a juice, you can almost drink the seeds and jelly inside once you crack open the outside, which strangely enough has the texture and hardness of egg. A talented person can suck out the mixture of jelly and seeds in one try without making too much of a slurping noise, and though I’ve seen it done by countless locals here, I still haven’t managed to eat one with any semblance of dignity.
Guanábana. This fruit is rich in carbos and lots of vitamins. Often served in juice form here, it has a weird but delicious blend of the tastes of pineapples, bananas, and strawberries.
And while we are on the topic of foods requiring little to no cooking, favorite most commonly found along the coastal regions of Ecuador and Peru is ceviche. Ceviche is made of raw fish soaked in lime juice served in a soup or on a leaf of lettuce with onions and sometimes popcorn or mote, corn kernels.
Of the many Ecuadorean soups I’ve been served, Caldo de Huevo is so far my favorite, and fortunately pretty simple to make. Here I’m using my host mom’s recipe. Although for this I’ll admit to have done a bit of estimation because, like a good cook, my host mom changes the soup every time and doesn’t use any precise measurements. You should definitely try figuring out the exact and best proportions yourself because, served with a little ají, this soup is well worth the trouble.
To start out, heat a mixture of half milk and half water, adding half an onion or more, cilantro, pinches of pepper and salt, and optional thin pasta (like Angel Hair pasta) until the soup starts to boil. When the soup has been boiling for several mibutes, drop in an egg for each person that you intend to serve until the egg is cooked.
Ají. Named after the South American ají pepper, this is a sauce that seems to vary somewhat from place to place but is served in some form almost anywhere in Ecuador. Here is what I could glean from how my personal favorite kind (my host mom’s) is made.
Take four aji peppers, a half-cup of water, two tomatoes, half an onion, and a bit of salt, sugar, and vegetable oil, and mix them together in a blender. Then strain what you have in the blender for solids and then the end result is some wonderful aji sauce. Served as a dip, on rice, in soup, or with whatever else you would like to add a little spiciness to.
Finally, just because it’s incredibly easy to make and my personal favorite: Guacamole. Although I’m told its originally from Mexico, guacamole has been adopted in Ecuador and just about everywhere else I’ve been with great results. Here’s my way of doing it and from this you should finagle your own as guacamole is incredibly delicious when made at home.
Get two avocados. Find some slightly soft ones and cut them in half around the seed, scraping the yummy green stuff out with a big spoon and mashing it. Next, dice a tomato, half an onion and a small amount of cilantro (or garlic, or both). You can then cut up little pieces of jalapeño, habañero, or ají peppers for some spiciness. Once all these things are in a big bowl, squeeze a bit of lime juice over top of it for taste (in my experience the acidity also acts as a natural way to keep things fresh as mashed avocados like to turn brown pretty quickly.) Finally, add some pinches of salt until you think it tastes good.
Further: You can also cut up some tortillas and fry them in a skillet of hot oil, adding some salt and rubbing on the pieces of lime leftover from making your guac to make yourself some fresh chips. Or, if you are in the mood for something more like you would find served here, you can cut up a banana or plantain in thin slices and fry them up to make chifles, or banana chips, commonly served alongside ají or soup.
Ah! I almost forgot a local favorite. Cuy. In Ecuador and other parts of South America, guinea pigs aren’t kept so much as pets for children but as food. A traditional Andean dish, these are usually cooked on a spit over an open pit or barrel until the skin is really crispy. In my experience they taste a lot like chicken. Buen Provecho!