Editor’s note: This is the last of a four-part series about vegetarian and vegan dining and shopping options in Cuenca. To read previous articles in the series, click part one, part two, and part three.
Text and photos by John Keeble
Ingredients and products suitable for vegetarians and vegans (veg*ns) can be found in dozens of places in Cuenca, though sourcing supplies can be difficult and the reality of some items can be far from the name under which they are sold.
Some shops are known by almost every expat and a good many Ecuadorians seeking veg*n and organic products. Tienda Nectar, at Benigno Malo 12-27, is one such place with a small selling area but a big reputation and loyal clientele for its quality products. Others, including recent additions, also have great veg*n options across the board from pickles to tofu.
One of the most surprising is La Chakra, a small shop at Honorato Vasquez 7-80 y Luis Cordero. It has 10 flavours of vegan cheese plus two vegan cream cheeses, though not usually altogether at the same time. Its owner, Leonardo Lopez, said: “Vegan cheese helps in social responsibility. There are benefits to nature and to animals.” He also stocks other veg*n products including sesame pesto, almond spreads with coconut and chocolate, chocolate and hazelnut spread and peanut butter.
Yanni Drosopoulos at Nectar said that about 90% of his clients were North Americans and Europeans and that about 35% of his clients were meat-eaters looking for natural and organic products.
Yanni, a vegetarian who administers Cuenca Vegetarian Group’s Facebook page, said most of Nectar’s products were vegan. They included meatless soy-free sausages made from beans, pure oils, breads, falafel, almond and walnut butters, and natural shampoos. On several days a week, producers take over part of the shop to sell organic produce and other items.
In many places around the world, obtaining vegan bread can be difficult. Here, in Cuenca, it is easy. Vegan bread, often handmade and superior quality, is easy to find at places like Bayou Caffe’s Monday market, San Sebas Cafe by Parque San Sebastian, and Nectar … for me, the Italian bread at Bayou, the wholegrain at Cafe San Sebas, and the walnut bread at Nectar.
Peanut butter as well as fruit and vegetables in mercados, spices at small specialist shops, soya drinks at Coral, vegan yogurts at Supermaxi … the variety is wide and waiting to be discovered.
However, some items available easily in expat home countries are very hard to find here and may not exist – but they are vastly outnumbered by the wonderful produce and ingredients that can be found.
Cool times in a hot market
Cheers! I’ll have a red wine with fruit, please. No, not from the bottle – from the vegan ice cream scoop. Now that’s unusual, in my worldwide experience, anywhere outside Cuenca.
There are few cities around the world that can compete with Cuenca’s selection of vegan ice cream – in fact, after a lifetime of travelling for work and pleasure, I can think of only one, Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, where I have found a better range of vegan ice creams.
Cuenca is also great for dairy ice cream, which suits my vegetarian friends, and there is an ice cream shop culture with comfortable places to sit and talk while enjoying an ice cream treat that can include fruit, cake and drinks.
Every ice cream shop, from the tiny to the spacious and elegant, offers a few vegan flavours among the dairy ice creams. Favourities usually include mora, tamarindo, lemon, tomate, and naranja.
A big selection of flavours can be found at Mixx at San Blas plaza. When I went there, it was love at first taste: vegan lemon and basil, delightfully sour and full of flavour, a low price and a half-litre being handed over with a free, unasked-for packet of barquillos.
“About 30% of my customers want no-dairy ice creams,” said Mixx owner Tom Carbone, a Canadian of Italian descent who has been running his business for five years. “I use my imagination to produce unusual flavours – like red wine with fruit – and they always sell.” The lemon and basil ice cream came from customer requests for a water-based ice cream that is sour.
There are many heladerías where customers can sit and enjoy a variety of ice creams and confections. And, of course, buy supplies for home use.
One of my favourites is Helados de Paila, which has been in business more than 30 years. It packs a real flavour punch into its vegan offerings. Elena Cabrera, the proprietor, has two shops: Gran Colombia 18-48, and Federico Malo y Tadeo Torres next to Parque de la Madre, where you can sit outside and watch the world go by while you enjoy your ice cream.
What’s in a name?
It is odd how most people judge a dish by what it “should” taste like rather than on how it actually tastes.
This makes it difficult when it comes to adapting to good food that simply does not match the name or the description.
Take vegan cheese for example: the label clearly stated what it was and also included the content of coconut. It was a great taste but did not have much to do with cheese beyond the label. Other vegan cheeses have been closer to the tastes associated with the names.
Susan Fox, a Cuenca expat who likes vegan cheese, said she was impressed by the cheese-like taste of a vegan almond cheese.
A well-known restaurant offers Thai soup on its menu. It is a delicious soup of an Asian nature but has nothing to do with the Thailand that I have known and loved for the past 40 years.
And another restaurant earned itself a lot of criticism because it offered pad thai and served a soy noodle dish … a very good dish but, since most people who went there had eaten pad thai and knew what it should be, there was a lot of dissatisfied muttering around town.
Ingredients, too, can seem very different from their descriptions. A bottle of ‘sweet chilli sauce’ came as a bottle of oil and chillis plus a chilli preparation to pour into it. But, while it did not match its name, the chilli oil did good service for a long time in various dishes.
Detecting suspicious tastes in food is a very natural way to protect against eating or drinking something bad. It’s not so easy when the food or drink is perfectly good but the description is bad.
I recall that, as an eight-year-old, I was experimenting while making one of my favourites: banana in custard. I used food colouring to turn the custard blue… and could not eat it, even though I knew it was perfectly good. Is something like that happening when good food is rejected because it does not conform to expectations from the name or description?
Notting Hill, a British big-hit romcom movie, had a laugh at this. One character was spooning something from a bowl and saying to another character: “I think this cream is off.” The other character replies: “That’s because it’s mayonnaise.” And the eater says: “Oh, that’s all right then.”
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.