By Liam Higgins
For both expats and tourists, Ecuador provides an adventure in colorful and often exotic cuisine, some of which is older than the Incas. Here are a few of the traditional foods of Ecuador and the entire Andean region of South America. In Cuenca, if you’re not sure where to find them, try the food court at one of the local mercados.
Considered a delicacy in the Andean region of Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, cuy – or guinea pig — is a special-occasion dish typically served with piles of potatoes, green vegetables and beer. Cuys are mostly raised in small family owned operations in the countryside and sold to restaurants in towns and cities where they are cooked over an open fire. There are elaborate cuy festivals throughout the Andes, especially in Ecuador and Peru, which include cuy beauty contests, races and, of course, roasts.
“Chugchucaras” is a word in the Quechua, the Pre-Colombian language of the locals that translates into “chest-feet-skin,” with said parts belonging specifically to a pig. In addition to the chunks of deep fried pork, pork rinds, and pig’s feet, however, the platter features boiled hominy (coarse ground corn), small potatoes, toasted corn, plantain and a small, cheese-filled empanada. There’s an urban legend that the pig itself is cooked with the waters of a local fountain, San Martin, to provide it a “miraculous” flavor.
A very hardy, chunky, sacred stew, the tradition is to serve fanesca only once a year – the week before Easter Sunday. Among other ingredients it features figleaf gourd (“sambo”), squash, and a variety of beans – 12 in total – and grains including lentils, corn, fava beans, parsley and various herbs. Each of the 12 different beans represents an apostle, and a cut of salt cod alludes to Jesus. It is generally consumed only during lunchtime, in the presence of friends and family. For the full story on fanesca, click here.
Salchipapas is fast food usually sold and consumed on city streets although some low-budget restaurants offer it on their menu. In Ecuador, it is often sold for $1, with a drink, from carts outside of schools. The name is a combination of “salchicha” and “papas”, for sausage and potatoes. The dish, frequently served in a cup, consists of whole or sliced pan-fried beef sausages and French fries and usually comes well lathered in mayonnaise and catsup.
Guaguas de pan
Guaguas de pan, or “bread children,” prepared during Day of the Dead celebrations, is another exotic Ecuadorian food that has a unique religious association. These sweet pastries filled with jelly are meant to resemble infants tightly wrapped in swaddling clothes – though it might also be a distant echo of the Pre-Colombian tradition of mummifying the dead. Thus, not all pastries are consumed, but taken and left on the tombstones of the dearly departed. The guaguas (or wawa) – another Quechuan word – are served with a thick, sweet, brewed purple beverage known as a colada morada, featuring blueberry, blackberry, pineapple rind and sugars and spices.
The quinoa grain has been a staple of the Andes going back to even pre-Incan society. The most commonly sold and consumed quinoa is ivory quinoa, though black and red quinoa is almost as popular; studies suggest there are as many as three thousand different varieties. Increasingly attracting attention to the wider world due to its high concentration of protein and lack of gluten, there as many ways to serve up quinoa in Ecuador as there are to serve up rice, though many enjoy simple quinoa soup, made with onion, butter, and salt.
Ceviche – a cold serving of marinated seafood – is ubiquitous in any Latin America nation that borders an ocean, but Ecuadorian ceviche has its own slight distinctions. Like Peruvian ceviche, it features seabass and shrimp. Unlike the Peruvian variety, it’s served along with the very juices it has been prepared in. It is usually served with toasted corn, popcorn, and/or plantain chips.
Commonly sold on street corners, a large plantain – a cousin of the banana – cut down the middle, filled with a slice of mozzarella and roasted over a grill has been a popular, inexpensive – USD$1 – and surprisingly nutritious fast food for decades in Ecuador.
Llapingachos – pronounced ya-peen-gah-choes – technically are friend potato patties stuffed with cheese, but they are also sometimes prepared with flour made from yuca, a root vegetable. The patties are also served with peanut sauce. The dish originated in the city of Ambato, and is especially popular with people living in Ecuador’s sierras.
Made from a combination of milk, sugar, and a ground white corn native to Ecuador, morocho – a thick, sweet beverage, like the aforementioned colada morada – is commonly sold on street corners and open-air markets. Prepared with vegetables and with less sugar, it can also be offered up as a soup.
Similar to the Mexican tamale, quimbolitos offer ground corn or occasionally quinoa, wrapped in palm leaves and steam-cooked. They often have raisins and are offered as a dessert treat, but they can just as well include beef, chicken, pepper, and a diced hard-boiled egg and be served as a main meal.
Bolon de verde
Made from crushed green (meaning not-ripe) plantain, a bolon de verde – which roughly translates into “green ball” – is like a large dumpling. Lovers of fried food should relish a bolon de verde, since the core ingredient is fried once to soften it, before being mashed and mixed with pork and/or cheese, formed into a ball, then fried again.
The yuca root – also known as cassava – is the third most popular source of carbohydrates in the world, even if largely unknown in North America and Europe. Fried yuca is as common as French fries. The gluten-free starch derived from the yuca root is used to make tapioca.