From exotic to traditional, tropical to Andean, Ecuadorian cuisine is diverse and delicious. It offers a taste of two different worlds, as many of the traditional dishes have merged Incan culinary heritage with the influence of Old World ingredients and cuisine. But more than that, Ecuador’s food tells the story of the local people and the environment that plays such an important part of their lives.
Like much of everything in Ecuador, the diverse terrain plays a pivotal role in the various region’s cuisine because each region incorporates the unique ingredients they have at hand. Ecuador’s Sierra (Andean highlands), Oriente (Amazon), and Costa (the western coast) each have unique culinary traditions and distinctive dishes. Traveling through the country really truly is a culinary experience where each location literally brings something new to the table.
Soups are Ecuador’s forte, and they know it. Savory soups usually accompany lunch and dinner as the first course. Several internationally renowned chefs have even gone as far as to say that Ecuador is the world’s authority on making soup. Several soup highlights are included here, but when traveling through Ecuador it’s important to remember that each principality, each region, and each town can have their own unique take on a similar soup. Oftentimes people find they do not merely have a favorite soup, but they can narrow down which region’s particular recipe they prefer.
Because yuca is such a predominate carbohydrate, Ecuadorians use it to make a variety of meals. While in the rainforest it is common to grate yuca to make into tortillas, the larger cities are filled with restaurants that serve Pan de Yuca, a bread made from yucca starch, butter, eggs, and cheese. These baked rolls are usually served with yogurt smoothies in Ecuador, a delightful combination although it might seem a bit odd at first.
Plantains make an appearance throughout the country, but they are a staple along the Costa. As they play such a prominent role in the Ecuadorians’ diet, people have gotten creative. Though plantain chips, or chifles, make for a tasty light snack, thick chunks of plantain can also be fried, smashed a bit, and fried again to create patacones if you’re looking for something more filling. Ecuadorians also love their cheese, and so they have created maduro con queso where whole, barbecued plantains are split open and stuffed with cheese. Plantains are served as soups, in soups, empanadas, as dumplings and more. These banana-esque fruits are common in street food dishes, so keep your eye out for some plantain specialties.
SUSTENANCE ON THE SIERRA
In Ecuador’s highland region, many traditional dishes are based around potatoes, cheese, corn, and avocados. Unlike other regions of Ecuador, the Sierra also incorporates lots of pork in their dishes, so if you’re achin’ for some bacon, head to the Sierra.
Roadside restaurants in the Sierra have several distinctive dishes that make for good eats. Llapingachos, small fried patties made of mashed potatoes and cheese, are often served as a side dish, especially with fried eggs and breakfast meat. Llapingachos can actually be found everywhere in Ecuador, but the Sierra has some more possessive pride over their local potatoes. Another common sight at small restaurants lining the roads in the Sierra are hornandos—whole roasted pigs—cracking away over a spit. If you stop in, you can purchase fritada, chunks of deep fried pork, that are commonly served with mote, a dish of boiled corn. Cayambe, a town outside of Quito, is also known for their bizcochos, a regional specialty. These butter-filled biscuits are baked in wood-fired ovens in the same method perfected over the ages.
Cuy, or guinea pig, are a delicacy reserved for special occasions. Although they are a cuddly pet many wouldn’t dare to eat in America, they are bred to be food in Ecuador so no emotional attachments are formed. If you’re an adventurous eater not immediately turned off by the thought of eating a cuddly rodent that might have been your childhood pet, cuy should be one of your culinary adventures. Although the small creatures do not have much meat on them, what meat they do have is incredibly tasty. In order to get all the meat and skin off the bones, the locals eat the cuy with their fingers.
Choclo Cancha is pretty much Andean popcorn. However, it’s not really America’s popcorn, as cancha is really what Americans would consider corn nuts. It’s a popular snack throughout Andean countries, not just Ecuador. When heated in a skillet, the cancha corn toasts and puffs up a bit, but it doesn’t burst like American popcorn. Ecuadorians season it and then serve it alone at markets or as a side dish. It’s most popular culinary accompaniment is ceviche.
This soup is a staple of the Ecuadorian diet, and it has been for over 500 years since the Spanish made their way to the New World. The name “locro” is derived from the Quechuan “ruqru” or “luqru.” Although it’s primarily thought of as a cheesy potato-based soup called Locro de Papas, locro soup can be made of a variety of bases. For instance, in Quito, cheese locro, or Locro Quiteño, is the preferred locro soup. Some Ecuadorian chefs have assembled a collection of over 200 different locro recipes.
COOKING A LA COSTA
The coast’s unique local ingredients not only make an appearance in the local cuisine but constitute much of its personality. Taken from the land, the costa’s typical dishes feature plantains, yuca, rice, and coconut. The region’s tropical fruits also play a larger role, and the locals’ diets include starfruit, papaya, and pineapple and more. These tropical treats are often mixed with the wealth of food taken from the nearby sea, the combination that makes Ecuador’s coastal cuisine so remarkable.
The ceviche must be good in Ecuador since it’s the country’s national dish. Archeologists have verified that the famous dish was being made in South America before the Spanish came, although the recipe was a bit different. Since the Spaniards were responsible for bringing over onions and lime, the indigenous people marinated the fish in passion fruit before the dish evolved to its modern presentation.
Even to this day, Ecuadorian ceviche differs from Peruvian ceviche. Whereas the Peruvians ‘cook’ their assortment of sea food in lime juice, hot peppers, and onions, the Ecuadorians cook their seafood before marinating it in lime juice and salt.
If you’re a picky eater, the Ecuadorian version might be for you since you often get to choose between shrimp, fish, black clam, or mixto ceviche. It’s also much less hot than the Peruvian ceviche, who are so particular about their spice levels that different regions use different hot peppers to flavor the dish. If you’re not huge into seafood, you can always snack on the popcorn that the Ecuadorians serve with ceviche!
Chupe de Pescado
According to some, this soup was created to be eaten during the Easter season when religious followers abstained from eating red meat. Of course, fish was a common substitute. To this day, this dish is commonly served during Easter. Although the word “chupe” comes from Quechua, which suggests pre-Spanish roots, its origins aren’t clear. No matter what its origin story may be, this fish chowder is delicious and distinctive of its coastal roots. Made with the ever-present potatoes, cheese, and corn, it is the added ingredient of fish—a variety of fish, but often of the ‘sucker’ variety—that make this fish chowder a coastal delicacy.
Esmeraldas is known for their signature dish encocado, a seafood specialty that brings in the creamy notes of coconut milk and grew from the region’s strong Afro-Ecuadorian heritage. Although it is typically made with fish, it has evolved over time and you will now often find it with shrimp or other seafood. Because it incorporates fresh seafood and coconut, it’s most commonly found on the beach or in other coastal areas. However, it’s also difficult to find outside of the Esmeraldas province, so if you’re in the area, eat up!
RUSTLING UP GRUB IN THE ORIENTE
Many of the traditional dishes of the Ecuadorian Amazon are definitely a gastronomic adventure not for the faint of heart. The cuisine of the Amazon is as exotic as the Amazon itself, and it definitely incorporates local ingredients.
In terms of exotic fruits, locals can be found munching on cocona, borojo, arazá, chonta, and more. Of course, those fruit don’t often make an appearance in dishes outside the Amazon and many people need a quick Google search to figure out what they even are. Nevertheless, these unconventional fruits are a tasty part of the Amazon experience.
Luckily, the Oriente’s list of preferred meats are more recognizable, if just as unorthodox. The animals most commonly found on a plate in the Oriente are turtles, monkeys, guantas (large rodents), giant ants, snakes, and chontacuro (chonta worms). These diverse proteins are often combined with more mundane starches, mostly bananas and yuca.
Several dishes are common, though the sides are often similar. Stewed guanta is often paired with beef, banana, and garlic with a side of rice or potatoes. Zarapatoca has similar sides but incorporates turtle meat. If the Ecuadorians are feeling like an assortment of meat, they prepare a unique dish called uchumanga that uses an array of intestines taken from the Amazon’s wild animals. Another is the Tamal, or maito, where banana or yucca pieces are combined with roasted chontacuro (chonta worm) wrapped in palm leaves.
The Tamal is relatively unique in its presentation of roasted chonta worms, as the chonta worm is often served alive and wriggling with a side dish of rice and bananas. As Timon and Pumbaa believe, they’re slimy yet satisfying. Hakuna Matata!
JUICES AND TIPPLES: ECUADOR’S TROPICAL LIBATIONS
Ecuador makes the most of its fruit-filled countryside by embracing juice, and most Ecuadorians begin their day with a refreshing glass of it and continue to sip on some throughout the day. With so many exotic fruits to choose from, Ecuadorians have chosen not to choose at all and instead have made juices out of anything and everything. The most common fruit juices are made from passion fruit (maracuyá), naranjilla, pineapple (piña), babaco, blackberry (mora), and more. The juices can be served pure (puro) or mixed with milk (batidos).
Fruit also makes it into the Ecuadorian’s adult beverages, and If you’re going to tipple in Ecuador, make it tropical! Ecuador’s history of cultivating sprawling sugar cane plantations has led to the creation of several sugar cane spirits that can be found throughout the country and are often mixed with a variety of fruit juices as cocktails.
The one fruit it seems elusive to the country’s mastery is the grape. While some local wineries are slowly beginning to turn out better vino, Ecuador largely relies on imports from Chile and Argentina because the home-grown goods tend to be sketchy and on the sweet side. That being said, Ecuador’s enjoy a good pilsner, a widespread preference made obvious in Ecuador’s most popular beer brand, Pilsener.
Traveling through Ecuador, try to find two of their most culturally distinctive beverages! It gets chilly up in the Andes, and canelazo cocktail personifies the spirit of the Ecuadorean highlands and warms the belly. The hot libation made from rum, cinnamon (canela), and naranjilla has been made in Ecuador since the 17th and 18th centuries when sugar cane was first cultivated and fermented in the country.
Chicha, a drink made from fermented corn or yucca, was popular before the Spanish arrival, and it remains a popular indigenous beverage in the Amazon Oriente as well as the Andean highlands. Historically, indigenous women masticated the corn or yucca and then spit it into pots where the chewed up remains were left to ferment with the aid of the saliva’s enzymes. Although today chicha is usually produced with more sanitary measures, you may have the opportunity to taste the authentic recipe if you happen upon a festival at an indigenous village.
BEEF UP YOUR FOOD PREP VOCAB
Apanado: batter-fried and breaded
A la brasa: grilled
Al vapor: steamed
Encocado: stewed in coconut
Seco: stewed meat plate