By Rob Bell
I am constantly raving about the quality of food here in Ecuador.
In the U.S. they make a big deal about organic food, along with a hefty price tag. I’m probably being a bit naive, but here in Ecuador it seems like practically everything is organic, from the fresh fruit and veggies to the freshly butchered chickens, pork and beef. Once you live here awhile and then return to the U.S., standard grocery store food tastes, for at least the first couple of days, artificial.
If you’re a vegetarian I apologize for delving into the sabor of animal flesh in Ecuador, but the farm chicken “del campo” is delicious, and hearty, a bit reminiscent of turkey because, running around free, they’re a bit more “stringy” with muscle tissue. Their hunting and pecking exercise makes for breast meat that remains juicy even if overcooked.
I’m also a huge fan of the pork, which is both delicious and bountiful here. Whole cooked hogs are on display just about everywhere. Sliced ham, on the other hand, does not exist.
The beef here is all grass fed, with cows on every hillside and sometimes even taking a siesta right on the side of the road. I was brought up to believe that the best beef is fed corn with fat (marbeling) running through it. The reality is that cows are not designed to eat corn, they can’t process it. American cattle are kept in feed pens all jammed together eating corn, which necessitates antibiotics so they don’t sicken. Beef here, by contrast, is mostly roaming free. I suspect dairy cows are slaughtered for their meat, however, as the beef is routinely tougher than in the states. But if you are lucky enough to purchase the tenderloin, it literally melts in your mouth with flavor, despite not having any “marbled” fat.
Food prices here are terrific. I purchased a 3 1/2 pound carne lomo (filet mignon) the other day for $16, so a bit over $4 a pound. My dear friend Deirdre, a professional chef, tells me this cut — being grass-fed — would cost around $70 in the U.S. Pork tenderloin goes for $3 a pound. Organic chicken is $1.50 a pound, and you can purchase wings for the same price!
Fish is also a bargain, and mostly ocean caught, not farm raised. Katty and I are very fond of Corvina, which is similar in taste and texture to Chilean Sea Bass, but Corvina only costs $2.50 a pound! You can buy decent sized red snapper to grill for a buck. Shrimp is widely available, of medium size, and costs $3 to $4 a pound. Shrimp is a major export of Ecuador, and I have no illusion that it’s caught in the ocean — it’s farm-grown. But it’s still delicious and a lot cheaper than in the states.
It’s difficult to get my favorite shellfish here in Cuenca, called Langostino, a large prawn bridging the gap between shrimp and lobster. This crustacea is easily available on the coast. I remember purchasing a dozen of them from a fisherman in Canoa, freshly caught, for $5.
I always purchase organic eggs, which cost 30 cents each, rather than the 10 eggs for a dollar industrial eggs. These organic eggs have orange yolks rather than yellow, and the shells come in many colors; from blue, green, brown, off white. Their silky flavor is definitely worth it.
Coffee here is outstanding! I buy ground coffee at a hole in the wall shop on Benigno Malo by the Parque Calderon. $4 a pound. $8 a kilo!
Of course there’s lots of food items here that you don’t see in the U.S. Bulk organic chocolate for example. It’s bitter of course, so I need to figure out how to make it a chocolate bar. Also common are squares made from panela (brown cane sugar) mixed with mani (peanuts). Panela fried peanuts are everywhere. In the markets, you see lots of colorful beans and corn kernels, cooked and uncooked. Tiny peaches, tiny apples, along with regular sized brethren, bananas of various types, mangoes of all shapes and varieties, “exotic” fruits that are not exported (many of which necessitate sucking on seeds), cow milk sold raw in used soda bottles (we boil it and it’s delicious), cheap street food including corn and (mostly) wheat pancakes, mashed fried potatoes (llapingachos), “two bite” pork sandwiches ($1.50 each), homemade salsas, a variety of smoothies and fresh fruit juices made to order (coco is my favorite), pulled cane (watch your fillings!), a hearty bowl of fish soup, usually sliced tuna sliced (encebollado), and of course, grilled guinea pig (cuy).
In Ecuador you can purchase a small plastic glass of goat milk – served warm directly from the goat udder – on street corners for a quarter.
A typical almuerzo lunch costs $2.50 for chicken soup, a fruit drink and a main course including chicken or beef, rice, and a salad with tomato, lettuce and onion.
Getting back to the headline, there are things that Ecuadorians eat which seem unusual to an American, and other things they generally don’t eat which seems equally unusual. For example, It’s common to find chicken feet in your soup. These gelatinous feet need to be sucked as they have bones. On the other hand, chicken liver and hearts are considered offal, and not generally eaten. Growing up in a Jewish neighborhood where chopped liver was a delicacy, not eating liver or grilled hearts (as they do in Argentina) seems like a missed opportunity. I love potatoes, but I’m Irish. Despite being able to grow literally hundreds of different kinds of potatoes, Ecuadorians don’t seem to like them very much, other than potato chips, and french fries which are always undercooked. Ecuadorians do however love and eat a lot of corn, which comes in a variety of kernel sizes, and they love rice, which they eat with literally every meal. Popcorn is an appetizer here.
Then there’s plantains, which are delicious and plentiful. So are plantain chips. But in the supermarket, finding homemade corn chips is a problem. And on Cuenca’s streets, vendors in Cuenca sell a lot of potato chips, and even bagged well done potato chips.
I love bread, but Ecuadorian bakeries all bake the same breads in exactly the same way. They sell rolls and loafs that sometimes look different on the outside, but are basically the same; hard crumbly exteriors, soft and tasteless interiors.
Then there’s guinea pig (cuy). I tried it once, and it was greasy and smelled like, well, what I imagine a cooked rat smells like. Tasted kind of like chicken, but very little meat. And cuy is relatively expensive, like $12 each. Yet the Ecuadorians chow down on this rodent like it’s Porterhouse.
As for the holy grail of foodstuffs, bacon, well, you can purchase something called bacon at supermarkets, but it ain’t. I actually have my favorite pork vendor cut me the pork belly and make my own. Ecuadorians also prefer super thin sliced pork chops, so I ask my pork vendor to cut it thicker. They also sell the head of the pig without skin (looks like a science project), the face of the pig’s head (cooked, with ears and eye sockets), along with tubs of pig lard and stringy pork intestines. I pass on all that.
As for spicy food, my Ecuadorian girlfriend hates anything even remotely spicy, which also seems to be typical of the Ecuadorian taste. But don’t worry, you can still purchase hot sauce and bring it with you when dining out!
Rob Bell is an expat from the New York Metropolitan area who observes Ecuadorian life and customs. Check out Experience-Ecuador.com to see his videos and photos of his travels across Ecuador.