By Christopher Lux
Ecuador is small country with a diverse geography. That geography produces diverse cuisine that corresponds to the regions’ abundant edible resources.
While the coast and mountains have their own unique dishes, many foods are shared by the entire country. One popular meal is the seco. Secos are usually stewed chicken, beef, or goat. They are typically served with rice, fried ripe plantains, avocado slices, and a small salad.
Then, you have the versatile empanada. Empanadas are like turnovers and can be found in many forms. They can be baked or fried, filled with cheese or meats, and sometimes covered in sugar. You can get Empanadas Chilenas and Empanadas Argentinas, which are usually filled with beef or chicken.
Another popular food is humitas. Humitas are steamed corn cakes made from a mixture of freshly ground corn, onion, garlic, cheese, eggs, and cream. These ingredients are placed inside corn husks and steamed. Humitas are eaten for a snack, dinner, or accompanied with coffee in the afternoon or for breakfast.
Salchipapas consists of deep fried sausages — most gringos call them hot dogs — and fries, usually covered in ketchup and mayonnaise. This dish is especially popular with younger people and can be purchased anywhere from street vendors, to bowling allies, to fine restaurants.
Pizza, though not a typical food, has become a popular food throughout the country. Many joke that it’s the “national food.” Ecuadorians often add their own touch by topping it with mayonnaise, ketchup and aji — aji is a hot sauce made with red chili peppers, tree tomatoes, garlic, cilantro, and lime.
In the Sierra, trout from the mountain streams is common. However, many of the typical dishes do not include seafood. Instead, meat dishes like hornado (whole roasted pig), pernil (sandwiches made with roasted turkey or pork), and cuy (guinea pig) are common.
Potatoes evolved high in the Andes and there are more than 200 varieties in Ecuador. Potatoes are used for locro de papas (a potato soup served with cheese and avocado), papas fritas (french fries), and llapingachos (potato patties stuffed with cheese and grilled until crispy). Then, there’s yucca, called “the potato of the lowlands.” It’s delicious boiled, fried, in soups, and in the Ecuadorian favorite pan de yuca (yuca bread). The typical Sierra diet is also heavy in rice and choclo (a large-kernel corn).
When my family was living in Cuenca and eating Sunday lunch with a Cuencano family, the afternoon started with alcoholic drinks. Then, we had beer and a large meal of fritada de chancho (pork cooked in water and orange juice until the water is reduced and the meat is browned in its fat), fresh cheese, avocados, potatoes, and choclo. After moving into the living room, we enjoyed coffee and desserts.
Since moving to the coast, I’ve seen a whole new culinary world. Here, the typical food largely comes from the sea. Fried fish, shrimp, and black clams are very popular on the beaches, usually served with rice and plantains.
Ceviche is a popular seafood dish typically made from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices and spiced with aji (chile peppers). The exact ingredients and methods of preparation of ceviche are different throughout the coastal region. It is served with canguil (popcorn), patacones (thick plantain chips), or chifles (thin plantain chips).
The menus of the fish restaurants that line beaches might include corvina (sea bass), camarones (shrimp), almejas (clams), conchas (black clams), and cangrejo (crab). Of course, you’ll also get your rice and plantains.
Another big dish on the coast — though also found in the sierra — is the bolon de verde. Bolones are stuffed with cheese, chorizo, bacon, or chicharrones, and then fried until crispy. The bolon is made with green plantains which are fried until tender, then mashed into dough, stuffed, formed into round balls, and then fried again until crispy. These green plantain balls, or dumplings, are often served for breakfast; but they can be used as a strong side dish or good appetizers. The first time I had a bolon was in Guayaquil more than two years ago. I had it at a restaurant for lunch, and it was served with a menestra of lentils.
Ecuador also has its own drinks. Fresh juices prepared with fruit (strawberry, mora, passion fruit), water, and sugar accompany breakfast and almuerzo. Jugo de coco (coconut juice) can also be found freshly prepared in the streets. Club and Pilsener are the two most popular national beers, but many microbreweries are opening in larger cities. For inexpensive good times, there’s aguardiente, an alcoholic drink made from sugar cane. It is especially important in the cooler climate of the highlands where it is used to make canelazo, a hot drink made with cinnamon, herbs and sugar.
It all comes around full circle as you dig into a huge plate of hornado in the market in an attempt to cope with the chuchaqui (hangover) caused by the aguardiente from the night before.