Savoring the rich taste of Cuenca

Jun 3, 2017 | 52 comments

By Robert Bradley

There are few activities for me that are more satisfying than preparing dinner with music playing in the background, with a glass of wine nearby. Savoring the finished product is great, but the act of cooking is equally enjoyable.

We are challenged to consume in order to live — but we are graced with the gift of appetite. The exercise of nourishing ourselves is rewarded with fulfillment and an immediate sense of joy. So, it should come as no surprise that I feel like I am in a far suburb of heaven when I am in one of Cuenca’s mercados. The chatter of vendors and the aroma of fresh foods mixed with brilliant colors and mysterious offerings simply thrills me.

I once bought what I thought was a melon — nope. It is a squash the size of my head.

Ladies of the mercado.

There is a yellow tube-like fruit that you cut off the top of 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, roasted Guinea pig — 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 potatoes grown in the Andes? My Irish ancestors would be as ecstatic as a hungry baby in a topless bar.

I bought a chicken at the market after I had been in Cuenca for only two days. 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 was that the steer was from Washington State, too, and must have followed me down here — step by step by step. He was certainly a lot tougher than me; I took a plane.

For those less inclined to the joy of rattling those pots and pans there are restaurants everywhere in cuenca. I mean it. There must be fifteen places within a three block radius of my home.

Time for almuerzo.

I quickly learned of a wonderful tradition here that most restaurants participate in: almuerzo or, lunch.  The menu is always fixed. You chose only with the slightest variation, chicken or meat.

Once you have made that decision, you are done. Sit back and relax. Lunch is coming. 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 high with rice and a small salad as a side dish. Dessert usually is a two bite-size affair that serves mainly to remind you that the pastelería is only two doors down and has a multi-layered 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.

Cuenca is a restaurant town. I spent a good portion of my life working in, studying in and eventually owning my own restaurants. I most recently hail from Vancouver, Washington, which is just across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon, long-noted for its food culture — and I have to say, I have every confidence that Cuenca will soon be holding her own against the giants. It seems like new places are opening daily — commanded by kitchens with a well seasoned staff and a chef with an international elán.

And yet newcomers still lose weight. You walk more here because the city is so captivating. You gorge less because the food is fresh, local, hand-raised and wholesome. What’s not to like? So, if you are coming to Cuenca just for a visit, or to stay, 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 everyday.

There is another thing about Cuenca that I love: the finely crafted Ecuadorian coffee. It is slightly acidic with overtones of cocoa and cardamom. The international reputation of being “superlative” is well deserved. I recently moved to a very cool and very old apartment building about two blocks from San Sebastian Plaza — so I go to Casa Azul Galeria Cafe or San Sebas on the plaza to savor a cup of coffee nearly every day.

I was sipping a cafe con leche recently when a mature woman sat at the table next to me and pulled out her tablet, cell phone and earbuds prior to ordering her own cafe. 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 4 bFd was useless — it was as if her life had come to a screeching halt. Mine already had. I was watching a mother teaching her son how to ride a bicycle in the park.

Taking flight.

What fortune to anonymously observe such an intimate moment between them. 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.

The sun was rising from behind weightless snow-white clouds suspended in an azure sky. The chirps, squeaks and high-pitched whistles of children’s voices in the distance sounded like an aviary of songbirds. The coffee, the mother and child, and even the woman who finally remarked, “I haven’t seen that in many years”, all blended together in its own mosaic of nostalgia and serene reflection. My life had come to a screeching halt.

And, I will fondly remember the moment for a long long time.
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