A friend of mine occasionally invites me over to her house for dinner and the ritual is always the same. Shortly after I arrive I am confronted with, “Well, I really want to make a pork roulade with ‘pomme frites’ and roasted vegetables, but I don’t know where to begin. Do you have any ideas?”
Hoodwinked again. Before you know it, I am handed an apron and a glass of wine. The hostess retreats to her patio and I am left alone to play in the kitchen.
As I was cooking dinner, I recalled my introduction to the many wonderful foods in the mercados and restaurants of Cuenca. I wrote a column about my surprise shortly after my arrival and reprise it here. It is one of my favorites from the vault.
For me, there are few activities that are more satisfying than preparing dinner with music playing in the background and a glass of wine waiting nearby. Savoring the finished product is great, but the act of cooking is equally enjoyable.
We are challenged to consume in order to survive — but we are graced with the gift of appetite. The exercise of nourishing ourselves rewards all the senses, fulfills our bodies’ needs, and produces immediate satisfaction, so it should come as no surprise that I feel like I am in an upscale suburb of heaven when shopping in one of Cuenca’s mercados. The aroma of fresh foods blended with brilliant colors tossed among mysterious offerings simply thrills me.
I once bought what I thought was a melon. Nope. It was a green squash the size of my head.
There is a yellow tube-like fruit that you cut off the top and squeeze like you would toothpaste. I, more often than not, will simply suck it right down like an oyster, seeds and all. It is absolutely delicious. I haven’t tried the prickly little red things yet, and I am saving cuy — Ecuador’s signature food — for my funeral. I am sure those who mourn me will enjoy it.
Did you know there are over 4,000 native varieties of Andean potatoes? My Irish ancestors would be as ecstatic as a hungry baby in a topless bar.
I bought my first chicken in a mercado on my second day in Cuenca. What a pleasant surprise! It tasted like seeds, grain, grass, bugs, clouds, sunlight and everything else that the bird enjoyed in her brief but productive life. I bought some pork that was so intensely flavorful you could taste the essence of corn in its diet. I bought a hunk of beef a while back, as well, and my first thought after my first bite was that this steer was from my home state of Washington, and must have followed me down here — walking every step of the way. He was certainly a lot tougher than I will ever be; I took a plane.
For those less inclined to the joy of rattling pots and pans, there are restaurants everywhere in Cuenca. I mean it. There are over a dozen places within a three-block radius of my home that are quite good, and a few that are excellent.
I quickly learned of a wonderful tradition practiced by many restaurants — almuerzo or, simply lunch. In Cuenca, it means a fixed menu affair. You chose only with the slightest variation, chicken, meat and fish and possibly a choice of soups.
Once you have made the decision, you are done. Sit back and relax. Lunch is coming. The first course is almost always soup and is almost always potato-based. Yum. Next up is your entree of choice — modest in size but delicious. Invariably your plate is piled mountain-high with rice and a small salad as a side. Dessert usually is a two bite-size affair with a most delicious name: locals call it lungua de gato, or cat’s tongue. This sample serves mainly to remind you that a pastelería is only a few doors down and has a multi-layered chocolate cake sold by the slice this very day. The average cost for almuerzo is $3.25, although prices range from $1.50 to $6.50. What a lovely way to treat yourself nearly every afternoon.
The restaurant scene in Cuenca is quickly evolving in new and exciting ways. I moved here from Vancouver, Washington, which is just across the Columbia River and Portland, Oregon, long-noted for its food culture — and I have every confidence that Cuenca will soon be holding her own against these culinary giants. New places are opening daily (and closing too) — commanded by kitchens with a well-seasoned staff and a chef with an international elán. Asian, Middle Eastern, and European styles of cuisine are all well represented here, some with truly extraordinary results.
And yet newcomers still lose weight. You walk more here because the city is so captivating on foot. You gorge less because the food is fresh, local, hand-raised and wholesome. So, if you are coming to Cuenca for a visit, or to linger for a while, come with a hearty appetite to taste the many innovative flavors and styles of cuisine in Cuenca. Your body will love you for it and your taste buds will excite you every day.
There is another thing about Cuenca that I love: the finely crafted Ecuadorian coffee, slightly acidic with overtones of cocoa and cardamom, its international reputation of being “superlative” is well deserved.
I was sipping an espresso recently in an outdoor cafe on San Sebastian Plaza when a mature woman sat at the table next to me and pulled out her tablet, cellphone and earbuds prior to ordering. It was only a moment later that the wifi connection was interrupted. Oh, she was so upset! After hauling out all that gear — her Samsung Galaxy bFd, her IPhone X, and the super-duper wireless buds, all was for naught. It was as if her life was coming to a screeching halt. Mine already had. I was watching a mother teaching her son how to ride a bicycle.
What fortune to anonymously observe such an intimate moment. Here I was, sipping my coffee and watching a routine older than my time on earth, in a plaza older than all of our years combined. A young woman, calmly and quietly talking her son through his fears as he wobbles away from his mother, and then sooner than either of them wants, the distance stretches between them until he turns downwind and is away on his own.
The sun rises behind weightless clouds. Chirps, squeaks and high-pitched whistles of children’s voices in the distance sound like an aviary of songbirds. The coffee, the mother and child, and even the woman who finally remarked, “How wonderful, I haven’t seen that in many years,” blended together in a quiet mosaic of nostalgia and serene reflection. We were all suspended in time, watching with bated breath, as a young boy takes his first turn toward independence and learns the joy of flight.