By Nancy Turpin
Many of us like spicy foods, and spices and herbs are a good additive to any meal. They bump up the flavors of basic foods and can make the difference between a merely OK dish and a YUMMY one. Ecuadorian cuisine relies on salt, aji (a hot, red chili pepper), culantro (a green herb with a flavor similar to cilantro), ajo (garlic), canela (cinnamon) and cumin. But it was easy to find oregano and curry in the little tiendas around town. Items that were once impossible to find now show up, albeit in limited amounts, at SuperMaxi and Coral, but it seems to be a never-rains-but-pours scenario — five shelves of fennel seed, but no onion salt. Five shelves of onion salt, but no ground sage.
When we first moved here I bought a medium-sized bottle of paprika at SuperMaxi, along with New Mexico Chili Powder. I was happy, because I use these for a sauce we make often! But when I returned to the store a few weeks later I learned an important point about shopping here…if you see it and you might need it later: better grab an extra package! It is common for an item to be in stock one day, and then not return to the store shelves for weeks, months…or ever! Then one must embark on a “treasure hunt” for alternate places to purchase spices and herbs!
A personal El Centro favorite is Esafran (Especieria San Francisco), at 6-58 Padre Aguirre, near the San Francisco open-air market. This great little shop is run by Piedad Cardenas, a lovely and helpful lady. Esafran has a glass case and counter facing the street. The staff does not speak English, but if you write down what you need in Spanish, you won’t have a problem.
Dates, pecans, dried cranberries, cherries or other fruits, nuts, and, of course, spices and herbs are available here. Piedad also sells cocoa powder, eggs, peanut butter, manjar, and even a few jars of almond butter. She carries various types of flour as well,; plus pecans in the shell, shelled cashews, macadamias, olives, and many other items., including packets of colored sugars and assorted types of ‘sprinkles’ for baking! The shop is open during the alumerzo hours.
Almacen del Dorado is located at 6-62 General Torres, and is owned by Julio Jurado. This large and attractive tienda has been in business since 1958! Jars full of spices, herbs, nuts, dried fruits, and miscellaneous cooking ingredients line the shelves and are available in packets and bulk. He even sells powdered pectin and bulk U.S.-type shelled peanuts. Again, the staff does not speak English. The tienda is also closed for a short time during the lunch hours, but is open weekend mornings.
Frances A. Hogg, author of “What’s Cookin’. Cuenca?,” says, “If you have a long shopping list of spices, or you are planning to bake Christmas cookies and you need something exotic like almond paste or silver dragées, visit Cadelaes. This spice and specialty supply shop, at Remigio Crespo 5-18, sells pine nuts, pecans, dried figs, medjool dates, pumpkin seeds, tahini and even Chinese spring roll wrappers, Japanese nori sheets and miso. You must provide a written shopping list in Spanish; they will collect the items for you and tell you how much to pay.” Another Cadelaes store is on the corner next to the Mercado 12 de Abril, Eloy Alfaro 5-99, at Padre Monroy. It is larger than the other store and you can actually walk around inside. Here you can buy candy-making and cake-decorating supplies including melting chocolate in gigantic quantities and chocolate molds, and the odd can of coconut milk. It’s an interesting place to poke around.
Among these shops, most of the spices and herbs commonly used can be found. There are also a couple of spice tiendas on Mariscal Lamar as you go past 3 de Noviembre Mercado, but their inventories are smaller, and they offer nothing particularly different or unique. If one looks hard enough the majority of the herbs and spices expats are used to CAN be found. It just takes perseverance!
Nancy Turpin is a happy 2 1/2-year resident of Cuenca, who enjoys exploring the shops and markets of Cuenca.