Text and photos by John Keeble
Holly Shrader finds that being a vegetarian in Cuenca is easy. She asks for a vegetarian option in any restaurant and always gets it. She shops in the market at fractions of the prices in her home town in Ohio. Her fluent Spanish helps, of course.
“I have been vegetarian since I was 15,” says Holly, a retired mathematics teacher who lives in Cuenca with her husband Lee. “I find that being a vegetarian here is not much different from in Ohio. For me it is natural. I am not a campaigner and I don’t do it for health reasons. I do it because it is what I am.
“My husband is not vegetarian, so I go to a lot of non-vegetarian restaurants. I ask what they can do for me and it is not a problem.”
One aspect that makes life better is the use of vegetables for soups, rather than US-style soups with a stock made from chicken or beef.
“I love the prices of the vegetables in the mercado,” she added. “In Ohio, I would buy one tomato for $2. Here, this week, I bought seven big, juicy, red tomatoes for $1. In general, all the prices are lower but sometimes potatoes can be a little more expensive than in Ohio.
“Avocados are a great favourite and here they are always available and they are always a good price. I use them in sandwiches, for guacamole and in soups.”
One of Holly’s favourite city restaurants is Simon 7-84, on Simon Bolivar near Parque Calderón. She eats there with her non-vegetarian husband Lee. “It is the best place for us to eat,” she said.
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Dena Jo Kanner is a regular Cuenca ‘expat visitor’ who is an administrator for the 1,400-member Food & Cooking In Ecuador group on Facebook. She has been “mostly vegan” since 2006 for health reasons. “I am trying to stave off diabetes,” she said. “I have a strong family history of it.
“I found it horribly difficult to be a vegan in Cuenca, to the point where I was happy if I could just be vegan at home.
“Good aspects? Good produce I guess. But if I had had to eat out all the time and be vegan, I would have starved.
“I ate at two vegan Chinese restaurants and disliked both of them. At my favorite Chinese restaurant, they would prepare vegan meals for me, but not happily. They seemed to think I was nuts. Oh, I did like the veggie burger at Magnolia Caffe, and Govinda’s was okay. Certainly better than the Chinese restaurants.
“When I return again soon, I am hoping to do better in restaurants. I’m open to suggestions.”
When she returns, what will she bring that she can’t get here? “Possibly vegan mayo to have in the house until I learn to make my own. Haven’t really thought about it. I’ll go through my recipes and see what I need to bring with me.
“I remember Otishna, an expat, used to put on a vegan meal once a month. I loved going to those. I’m hoping to start a vegan monthly potluck when I return.”
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John Keeble has been a lifelong veg*n with the complete range of usual reasons but, mostly, a fundamental belief that exploiting and killing another living creature for food is immoral and wrong.
“It was difficult to be a vegan when I first arrived in Cuenca nine months ago – but that was my fault and not the fault of the city. As I got to know the opportunities for vegan food, I grew more and more surprised and impressed.
“I’ve travelled all over the world for work and leisure and I know how difficult special diets can be to maintain. I lost 28lbs in a month in jungle areas of Sumatra; and I’ve been overwhelmed with the wonderful vegan food in Thailand.
“Cuenca seems to be flowering as far as cuisine is concerned. There seems to be an energy of change with new and perhaps unlikely restaurants opening – Thai Connection with the taste of Southeast Asia, the Indian restaurants that do their best with dishes from the sub-continent. And wonderful fusion restaurants, like La Quinua that serves traditional Ecuadorian food but also Bombay Potatoes that are better than any of the Indian restaurants.
“The produce and products for preparing at home are fantastic in variety, taste and prices. There are some things that I miss: strong, fresh coriander, vegan cheese made from soya and good for melting on pizza etc, and good Indian- and Japanese-style curries. But there are so many other things to enjoy and explore here, and it all gets better as my cooking skills expand into locally available ingredients.”
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Catalina Ordóñez Vicuña has been a vegetarian since gall-bladder surgery in 2009. Younger family members, then living in Canada, convinced her that her health would be better if she lived on a vegetarian diet. Later, to combat a sinus problem, she cut out dairy apart from a little cheese occasionally.
“Since changing my diet, I have had very good health,” she said. “I have felt well and I have had no more sinus problems.”
She does not eat in veg*n restaurants in Cuenca because she does not think they provide high enough quality. “The ones that I have tried have just taken off the meat. The only good vegetarian restaurant is Good Affinity.”
However, she has noticed that vegetarianism is growing in Cuenca but thinks it is being slowed among Ecuadorians because it generally costs more than the usual almuerzos.
“People choose this kind of food to prevent illness,” she said. “In Ecuador, we have a lot of problems with cancer and other diseases. With a vegetarian diet, it is more possible to have good health.”
Catalina notes that the Andean culture, before the arrival of the Spanish colonisers, had food that was rich in vitamins and proteins. Now, many people, especially the poorest, eat easy processed foods rather than seek good nutrition.
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Tina Paul and her husband Keith keep to a vegan diet at home but find it difficult when they eat out. “I would love to see more vegan restaurants in Cuenca that offer tasty, unique dishes,” she said.
“I think a vegan diet is the healthiest diet on the planet. By vegan, I mean a whole food plant-based diet. Just because you don’t eat animals or dairy does not mean you are eating healthy. You could have a donut for breakfast, a bag of chips and a soda for lunch and a vegan pizza for dinner. That is a total vegan day but not healthy eating.
“At home I eat whole plant-based foods. I do not eat processed foods, animals, fish or dairy. I eat like this to stay healthy. We do not need to suffer with heart disease, diabetes or many other illnesses. These illness come about because of the way we eat and live. A plant-based diet can reverse many diseases, especially heart disease and diabetes.”
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Judy Thurmond was wondering how, as a vegetarian, she would eat when she arrived in Cuenca two years ago. Now she finds the opportunities “exciting”.
“Coming to a new culture in a new country, I had to deal with the language, and improving my Spanish gave me many options for living happily as a vegetarian,” she said.
“I found when I arrived that if I just asked for a vegetarian meal in some places, they would say they did not have it. Then I found that if I said what I wanted – vegetables, rice, soup, for example – most places could do it for me. This approach opened up many possibilities and now I have a good, balanced diet.”
In the past two years, she has seen a big increase in her own knowledge of where to eat and in the number of restaurants offering veg*n meals. “It has become a lot easier to be vegetarian comfortably,” she said. “It was always possible to ask for rice and salad, but I need more for a good and interesting diet. Now this is easier.”
Many of her friends are not vegetarian but there is no problem finding restaurants that can offer what they eat and vegetarian for her. And the increasing variety of restaurants offers “exciting” options from mild Ecuadorian cuisine to spicy meals from other countries.
Judy, the co-administrator of Cuenca Vegans & Vegetarians Facebook group, finds that her vegetarian diet gives her the energy to hike in the mountains every week. She is the leader of Our Hiking & Rambling Group (Facebook).
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Johnnathan Oversluijs, a young Ecuadorian trying the $2.50 almuerzo at SlaGreen veg*n restaurant in Gran Colombia, said: “I am not vegetarian. I love meat but sometimes I just want to eat vegetables. I have eaten vegetarian meals before – my aunt and her family are vegetarians. It is difficult to find anywhere to eat this kind of food and I really loved what I had here today.”
John Keeble is an international photo-journalist living in Cuenca. He ‘retired’ after 25 years with The Guardian in London and has spent the past 11 years giving media services to NGOs as well as writing about and illustrating social issues. He is a life vegetarian and has been a vegan for more than 30 years. He has had wide coverage for his articles and photographs since moving to Cuenca in February 2016 and he recently started a Facebook group, Cuenca Vegans & Vegetarians, to make it easier for veg*ns to find restaurants and supplies.