Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series about being vegetarian or vegan in Cuenca by John Keeble, 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.
Text and photos by John Keeble
Living a vegan or vegetarian life in Cuenca can be a big problem – there are so many choices and options, it is difficult to choose what to buy and where to eat in the growing market for natural and humane meals and products.
There is an abundance of vegan and vegetarian (veg*n) restaurants, ice cream shops, eateries with veg*n options on the menu, coffee shops with veg*n snack or meal choices, and eateries ready to cook specials or convert menu dishes to veg*n.
And, apart from the fantastic vegetables and fruits on sale everywhere, the sales outlets for veg*n products range from tiny health food shops to Supermaxi supermarkets; and from the woman selling grilled plantain in the street to a shop selling 10 flavours of vegan cheeses.
My own choice of places to eat is so wide that I might have a Chinese-style almuerzo at Good Affinity, an Ecuadorian almuerzo at Govinda’s, lunch at the Mexican Cafeterio de la Catedral Vieja behind the old cathedral … dinner at La Quinua for Ecuadorian or international veg*n meals, a taste of Southeast Asia at Thai Connection, Cuenca’s best vegan hamburger at A Pedir de Boca … or many more great places.
But not everyone wanting veg*n meals agree with this. Tina Paul, a traditional naturopathic doctor certified in plant-based nutrition through Cornell University, said: “Cuenca can be challenging for a vegan when eating out because most dishes consist of meat, poultry, fish or dairy of some sort. One always has the option to ask that the place make you vegetables and rice or a salad. Many places will do this for you. If you are eating at home, I think Cuenca is a fantastic place to be vegan because there is a lot of fresh produce available year round.”
Recent years have seen a gradual climb in the number of restaurants and shops offering non-traditional meals and products in Cuenca, including veg*n, as expats from around the globe and Ecuadorians offer ready returns for enterprising restaurateurs, shops and producers.
There are several vegan and vegetarian groups: the Seventh Day Adventists, Cuenca Vegetarian Society (Facebook group with 164 members), and Cuenca Vegans and Vegetarians (a new Facebook group with 89 members).
Today, new restaurants tend to offers veg*n options and are very willing to cook or adapt dishes for veg*ns in Cuenca’s highly competitive eating-out environment. At least one new veg*n restaurant – SlaGreen at the San Blas end of Gran Colombia – has just opened to service mostly Ecuadorian workers and those wanting a change of diet.
“A lot of people are looking for different kinds of meals in Cuenca,” said Karina Villagómez, Executive Director of the Ecuadorian-American Chamber of Commerce. “Restaurants with vegetarian and vegan food are part of this: vegetarians and vegans are an opportunity for business.”
In some veg*n restaurants – Good Affinity, for example – about half the diners are not 100% veg*n. Some are local workers attracted by the quality and price, and others are diners interested in enjoying a change of diet as some might choose Chinese or Thai cuisine for a change (though, of course, at a much lower price). One of the most popular veg*n restaurants is El Paraiso at San Blas plaza. It is a branch of a city chain and often has scores of people eating there. In fact, so many that sometimes it is impossible to get a table despite the restaurant’s two floors. It is likely that most diners are attracted by the excellent value for money. And SlaGreen knows its market is mostly among meat-eaters wanting a good, nutritious alternative. In other good veg*n restaurants, like Govinda’s, there is usually more of a balance between expats and Ecuadorians.
Most veg*n and non-veg*n eateries create interesting and nutritious meals, in my experience as a vegan living in Cuenca, but some places adding ‘vegetarian option’ to the almuerzo menu lack veg*n skills and either think it is enough to leave the meat off the plate or fill the plate without thought about nutritional and taste variety.
“In Ecuador, vegan and vegetarian meals have increased in the past 10 years,” said Sebastian Vallejo, owner and executive chef of Bayou Caffe. “But often they have been done with too many carbohydrates and not enough protein and vegetables.
“It is a trend starting to blossom. People want to eat more healthily and vegan and vegetarian diets are good for this.”
While some find the veg*n opportunities in Cuenca to be easy and good, others point to difficulties for expats in finding what they want, and some veg*n prices being above what many Ecuadorians can afford.
“Vegetarianism is increasing here,” said Cuenca social writer Catalina Ordóñez Vicuña. “Ecuadorian people are concerned about their health and they feel that vegetarianism is a way to stay healthy. There is also more interest now in traditional medicines and ancestral foods – like quinoa and sweet potatoes – that are seen as valuable in preserving health.”
Expat vegetarian Holly Shrader agreed about the increasing interest in veg*n meals. “I have been in Cuenca for two years. In that time, there has been an increase in awareness with more placards outside restaurants showing almuerzos with vegetarian options. This has been especially noticeable in the last year.”
Tomorrow, Part 2: Reviewing the vegetarian and vegan dining options in Cuenca.