By Stephen Vargha
Asian food has had a slower journey to public acceptance in Cuenca than in the United States. It was introduced to the U.S. in the mid-1800s when Chinese laborers from Canton began working for the railroad. At that time, the food was consumed primarily by the Chinese community.
Chinese food became popular with young cosmopolitans in the 1920s because it was considered exotic. It wasn’t until after World War II that Asian cuisines entered mainstream America. Its popularity has risen, making it easy for one to get special Asian ingredients for the kitchen almost anywhere in the United States.
Finding Asian food ingredients in Cuenca has not been easy for North American expats, who want to continue cooking Asian meals. Even Supermaxi was not a great source for all those special ingredients. “I started hearing that Asian products were hard to get so I got hoisin sauce, chili garlic sauce, and black bean garlic sauce,” said Luis Villacis.
Villacis is the owner of Luvimar, a small gourmet foods store on Luis Moreno Mora, in El Vergel. “I found a Korean importer which allowed me to get fish sauce,” said Villacis. “People just love it! I have customers who buy six bottles of it at a time.”
Right after that, Villacis found a Chinese importer in Guayaquil. He is now carrying some of the Lee Kum Kee line. The company is a Hong Kong-based food company which specializes in manufacturing a wide range of authentic Chinese and Asian sauces.
The road to Luvimar has been rather serpentine-like for Villacis. After graduating high school, he went to school at Lindenwood University, a private college in St. Charles, Missouri in the U.S.
During his time at the St. Louis suburban private school, Villacis was a receptionist at KCLC, Lindenwood’s radio station. “I worked there as part of my scholarship,” said Villacis. “It did not pay anything, and I needed money, so I washed pots and pans at the school’s cafeteria. It wasn’t pretty, but it was money.”
The Guayaquil native went back to his hometown to finish his college education. Villacis got an advertising degree from Great House University in 2009. After graduating, Villacis worked for a video production house in Guayaquil.
“I was an executive producer for them,” said Villacis. “Our biggest clients were the National Lottery and Créditos Económicos (an e-commerce store that sells appliances, audio & video, and other electronics for your home).”
Villacis lost his job when the industry started going down. He was without work for two years until a college friend of his contacted him. She was in Cuenca, so Villacis moved south to open a business in 2015 that sold aged cheeses, gourmet food items, and fresh breads. “It did not work out,” said Villacis. “So, we parted ways.”
Out of work again, Villacis had to make a decision about his future. “I completely fell in love with Cuenca, and I did not want to go back to Guayaquil,” said Villacis.
His love of seafood made it easy for Villacis to figure out what to do. He opened up Luvimar in February 2018. “It was only shrimp and tilapia,” said Villacis. “My business increased with the pandemic. With that, I invested in quality cheeses.”
Because of his love for intense flavors as well as his customers, Villacis looked overseas for some of his cheeses. “I originally had Ecuadorian blue cheese but started importing Danish blue. It’s a lot more intense,” said Villacis. “Because of its popularity, I no longer sell the domestic blue cheese.”
Expats make up 95 percent of his clientele. “I talk to my customers about what they want before ordering any items,” said Villacis. “I have a lot of things to choose from.”
One of those things is Shaoxing Chinese cooking wine. It is made from rice and is one of the most popular types of Chinese rice wines for cooking due to its complex and sweet flavor. Restaurants in China use it in everything from stir fry sauces to soup broths to fried wontons.
Luvimar gets its miso (a Japanese fermented paste that’s made by inoculating a mixture of soybeans with a mold called koji) from Brazil. For many, that may sound weird, but Brazil has the biggest Japanese community outside of Japan with approximately four million people. It also has factories producing Japanese food products.
Getting food products from Japan is a different story. “It is difficult to find Japanese products because there are few Japanese importers in Ecuador,” said Villacis. “Our wasabi (Japanese horseradish) is made in China.
The choices for soy sauce in Cuenca are very limited, with Kikkoman basically being it. When asked about getting Yamasa soy sauce (a high-quality artisanal shoyu for four centuries), Villacis said that would be difficult, but he will attempt to bring the highly popular soy sauce to Cuenca.
In an Epicurious interview with Chef Niki Nakayama, the Japanese-American chef and owner of Michelin-starred n/naka restaurant in Los Angeles, said Yamasa is their go-to general soy sauce for seasoning and cooking.
Kimchi is brought in from Ecuador’s capital. It is a traditional Korean condiment of salted and fermented vegetables, such as napa cabbage and Korean radish. “It is made by a Korean lady in Quito. She imports Korean products and makes the kimchi the original way,” said Villacis. “People have said it is fantastic. It is not as hot as traditional kimchi.” He added that the Korean woman makes it less intense for Ecuadorians.
The seafood is Villacis’ forté. “I sell a lot of salmon from British Columbia and Canada,” said Villacis. “It is farmed raised, but the practices are better than the Chilean farm raised salmon that is sold in most of Cuenca.” He added that the Canadian salmon has more oils and flavor.
His bay scallops are from Peru. “They are not common in Ecuador,” said Villacis. “It started selling in Guayaquil but is now available in more places.”
Villacis is proud of his organic tilapia. “Most tilapia sold in Cuenca has a musty odor and an earthy flavor,” said Villacis. “My tilapia is farm raised in Ecuador by the number-one producer and exporter of organic tilapia. The fish only eat what they are fed.”
The shrimp from Luvimar is from the same company with the organic tilapia. “The shrimp is from various sources, and they are processed in Guayaquil,” said Villacis. “They are deveined and peeled. The best is for exporting. That is what I get from them. It is high quality shrimp.”
Luvimar used to have paiche, which hails from the Amazon River basin and is one of the world’s largest freshwater fish, getting as big as 450 pounds. Luvimar’s source had difficulties with the roads in the Amazon region, making it impossible to deliver the popular meaty fish.
It is not only international foods that are available at Luvimar. “I try to work with a lot of local producers. It is why I have King’s Smokehouse products,” said Villacis. “Their Carolina Cornbread is very popular, and now we are selling their hand ground grits which is a hot seller.”
Another local source is Amiel. The products are 100 percent natural. Local Mexican food is available, too. “I started selling Mexican-style aged sausage with wine and whiskey. It is spicy,” said Villacis. “The Mexican products are made in Cuenca at La Enfrijolada. The owner travels to Mexico to get his genuine Mexican ingredients.”
All of this is in front of Villacis’ house that used to be a restaurant. The former garage in front is now Luvimar. “What I did was to make it as pretty as possible. I built it up from nothing,” said Villacis. “Living right next to my store, I am always here for you. I’ll be right there to handle your food emergency.”
Luvimar, Luis Moreno Mora 585, Cuenca 010204, 096-895-7920, firstname.lastname@example.org, https://luvimargourmet.com/, Facebook, Hours: Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (Except Holidays)
Photos by Stephen Vargha
Stephen Vargha’s new book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats.