Culinary tourism in Ecuador: How it looks is just as important as where it comes from
By Lance Brashear
Ecuadorian cuisine is a rich blend of local and foreign products and techniques that have melded together for almost five centuries. Few people understand this mixture as well as Carlos Gallardo.
Gallardo is Director of “Rescate de Sabores” (Rescuing Flavor), an investigative program sponsored by the University of the Americas (UDLA, for its Spanish acronym) that is laying the foundation for culinary and gastronomic tourism in Ecuador. He has traveled to every corner of Ecuador over the past five years studying and documenting Ecuador’s culinary traditions.
For Gallardo, and UDLA, the future of the tourism industry in Ecuador is in the food. “The Rescate de Sabores project looks to rediscover and diffuse traditional foods of Ecuador and the products that are most representative of the different regions, pursuing a firm dream to convert the country into a culinary, tourism destination,” Gallardo says. “It has a lot to do with our people, [from] our farmers cultivating strawberries in Cayambe [to] our old cooks preparing ‘cuchis’ potatoes in Cuenca.”
For Gallardo there are two ways to approach the preparation of Ecuadorian cuisine: modern cooking and cooking by product.
Modern cooking is actually “criollo” cooking, presented in a modern way – a better, cleaner, more attractive presentation of traditional dishes. What is criollo cooking? The term ‘criollo’ originates from the conquest, when a Spanish immigrant mixed with an indigenous native. Their offspring were criollos – born in the new world, but with old world lineage and influences. The same can describe not only people, but food as well.
The history of Ecuadorian food is a complex story. The Spanish arrived in the 16th century, a relatively recent time in human history. Before 1500, the region had 10,000 years of ancestral food traditions during which time the potato, chili pepper, and corn were domesticated. All three eventually would become key ingredients in criollo cuisine during the Spanish colony – a 300 year period from 1530 to 1830.
With the arrival of independence in the 19th century Gallardo says the new nation of Ecuador looked for international acceptance, particularly from Europe. The next 170 years saw ancestral and criollo food traditions left behind in favor of more contemporary and globally recognized foods, like French cuisine. “You could not have international recognition if food in Ecuador was not at the same level as the fashionable foods in the countries from which they sought recognition,” says Gallardo.
European food would dominate the gastronomic scene of Ecuador until the dawn of this century when people began to rediscover the ancestral roots and take pride in their criollo traditions. Today, Gallardo says that although international cuisine is plentiful in Ecuador visitors should come to taste the local fair.
“The tourist wants to see, based on local products, a different future,” says Gallardo. “We would be blind not to recognize outside techniques that benefit us…[but] we have to learn from the best in the world using our products. We have to offer our own things.”
One way to offer their own things is via traditional dishes, but in a modern, attractive, and sanitary presentation. Gallardo looks at a picture of traditional, roasted guinea pig with the head and toes on the platter. “Why do we sell guinea pig this way?” he asks. “We cannot internationalize our food to tourists if we do not present it attractively…while conserving tradition.”
Cooking by product
If there is one thing that is as rich and varied as traditional criollo dishes in Ecuador, it is the products from which those dishes are made, and the reason Gallardo offers an alternative approach to internationalizing the country’s cuisine.
“How can you not love Ecuadorian food if a chef decides to make tuna with Amazonian, naranjilla sauce perfumed with Andean quinoa?” Though it is not a traditional dish, Gallardo is emphatic that it is still Ecuadorian cooking. “Our movement is not just to try to sell seco de chiva, caldo de patas, hornado, fritada, or empanadas de morocho,” he insists.
Gallardo asserts that if a chef uses native products, but prepares them in contemporary ways, then Ecuadorian cuisine can advance to an entirely new level. Tuna from Manabi, potatoes from Carchi, bananas and prawns from El Oro, quinoa of Cotopaxi, cacao from Guayas, strawberries and edible rose petals from Cayambe, and fresh water fish from the Amazon are just some of the examples Gallardo cites. “We utilize our products so that the creativity of any chef in the future gives birth to great imagination.”
Clean food for the tourist
Whether chefs and restaurants offer traditional criollo cuisine in a modern presentation or signature cuisine utilizing local products, one thing must never be compromised: safety.
“The principal criticism of Ecuadorian food is that it is not served sanitarily,” Gallardo says. Ecuadorian food is also often heavy and not always healthy.
“It is our obligation to say how many calories [a dish] has [and demonstrate] how a person prepares it sanitarily,” Gallardo says. To implement this requirement, he gives credit where credit is due. “This is very American. If there is a country on this planet that must be recognized that is good in nutrition and safety, it is the United States.” He says they are adopting the best practices as part of the Rescate de Sabores project. “In the sanitary and nutritional part, one has to follow the U.S.”
Finally, Gallardo recognizes that knowledge is useless if it is not shared. Part of the Rescate de Sabores Project is to publish their findings and make them available to everyone. Last year Gallardo published “Festivities & Flavors of Ecuador,” about celebration and food in Ecuador. Recently, they issued the second edition of “Chefs of Ecuador” profiling some of the country’s most distinguished cooks who offer recipes with modern presentations.
Rescate de Sabores is also behind a series of books that, with the help of chef Mauricio Armendaris, showcase traditional foods, attractively presented, with nutritional properties and critical control points for sanitary preparation.
“Why do these recipes matter?” Gallardo asks rhetorically. “We are doing them so that next year chefs, using their head, take these recipes and say, ‘Okay, I am going to prepare this recipe and present it in a way that is attractive, more nutritional, with nutritional techniques so the tourist can accept our food.” He reminds us that food, after all, enters through the eyes before it ever gets to our mouth.
Credit: Reposted from the Miami Herald International Edition, www.TodayInEcuador.com; photos by Sumana