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What’s edible and what isn’t in Ecuador?

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.

Most beef cattle are free-range in Ecuador.

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!

The choices of produce are plentiful in Cuenca mercados.

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!
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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. 

24 thoughts on “What’s edible and what isn’t in Ecuador?

  1. You see the feet, and other parts of the chicken in your soup because of the hyaluronic acid it imparts to the food. H acid helps your joints, and is a major component of synovial fluid (knee joints fluid), as well as many other things. A needed nutrient.
    Of course, a cook who put feet into the soup did not know about H acid in, let’s say, 1840. But he knew, through collective wisdom, how important it was for health.
    Thank the Good Lord for the abundance of food here!

  2. “I’m probably being a bit naive, but here in Ecuador it seems like practically everything is organic.” Uh ya…you’re being naive. Why don’t you get out into the campo and visit farms where vegetables actually are grown, then come back and report on how many of those farms are “organic.”

    I live on a small farm and have experience trying to grow things without the use of chemicals here. I’m also surrounded by neighbors who insist (and I agree) that it’s virtually impossible to grow “organically” here. According to neighbors, years ago not many growers used chemical pesticides, fungicides or insecticides. Now, however, the world has changed and nearly everyone uses some kind of chemical control. At my farm, we pay a lot of money to use bio-stimulants and other products that we either make ourselves or that are marketed and sold here as organic. Most farmers cannot afford to buy those products and opt for the cheapest, quickest solution to bug control. Don’t believe everything you hear! If a farmer tells you his produce or his vegetables are”organic,” go to the farm and observe his practices to find out for yourself. I think you’d be surprised at what you’d find.

    1. Really? I have a farm, also, and I use my chickens as bug control. They go up and down the garden rows, and feast on bugs from 6 AM to 3 PM. They stay in the coop on rainy days, but they do a good job most days on pest control, and they work cheaply.
      They follow the cows around, and feast on the undigested grubs and worms found in the manure. It may not sound so appetizing to us humans, but the chickens see these grubs,etc; as delicious treats. Plus, the chickens flatten the manure into the ground by stomping over it, and help drive this mineral-rich soil nutrient to where it belongs- God’s green Earth.
      Chickens are nature’s garbage cans. I had extra fruit, grown on my farm, which I could not finish myself, and even gave some away at the Sunrise. The few pieces I had left were starting to go bad, so I threw them into the the chicken corral, and they were gone in about 5 minutes. Instant garbage disposal.
      Yes, I agree that the word “organic” is merely a Madison Ave advertising slogan. Always was, always will be. You have to go to the food source and see for yourself.

    2. thanks for mentioning the use of chemicals. We also live in the country, and have seen way too many veggies sprayed, one time so that all the veggies were dead the next day. We have given up growing veggies in our garden, because there are way too many bugs, they seem to like almost everything. Yes, we do have chicken too, and when they get into the garden they eat everything from lettuce to strawberries, don’t know what you are growing that the chicken don’t eat???

      The locals here pretty much grow all their own stuff if they want to eat organic, they don’t go to the market to buy it unless they know the person who is really selling organic stuff.
      We have grown our own birds for years and are very aware of how different they taste and how tough the meat is when it is grown free range. You really want to have to chew it, and all our birds we eat are only 6 months old, because they are only good for soup after that.

      So, organic is just a term to satisfy the foreigners. Sorry, but I believe that to be true. Unless you go to an organic market, and then you get to see the difference in size and looks of all the veggies.

  3. Are you kidding? I live out in the countryside and all my neighbors are using some kind of chemical pesticides, insecticides or fungicides on their vegetables, fruit trees, corn, everything they grown in their farm. When I asked farmers on the Sunday market if their vegetables are organic they said yes. Than I asked what kind of pesticides are they using and they names me a couple. And they still call their stuff organic. Also, thinking that meat is organic here, is naive. My neighbor is selling “organic” eggs for $0.25 a piece but he is feeding antibiotics to his chickens and medicates them also. I asked him why is he doing it, he said he has about 100 chickens and if a couple of them get sick he doesn’t want all of them to get the sickness and die. So he medicates them for prevention. Because of this, his chickens aren’t organic nor his chicken eggs. But he sells both as organics. I can not imagine farmers are not medicating their cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, guinea pigs for the same above reason.

    1. Maybe your neighbor should go to “chicken college.” I myself, and many other farmers, do not medicate the animals. You may be over-estimating this practice.

      1. I am not talking about other farmers nor about you, I am just stating the facts about my my own neighbor who told me what he does. I am not over-estimating anything.

    2. Thank you setting the record straight. Saved me the trouble. Btw, I have pretty much given up on beef save one vendor

  4. I hear that chicken feet stock is the only way to go, so when my kitchen arrives, I am going to boil up a huge batch to use in my soups. Viva La Cuenca!!!

    1. Definitely feet in stock, heads and other parts. And freeze old vegies past their prime too Making your own is easy fun and much better than store bought. Just make those vegies are organic LOL

  5. What the author likely mistakes for “organic” is simply local, farm-fresh produce which tastes better than most produce in US supermarkets because it’s harvested at its peak of ripeness and travels a sort distance to market. By comparison, most produce sold in the US is harvested before it’s fully ripened an then matures off-the-vine during its long journey to your table.

  6. Enjoying the delicious food is one reason why I hang out in Ecuador. Freshness has a lot to do with the taste. One can buy wild caught shrimp in the market if you know how to ask, and trust the vendor ($4-$5/lb.). The people here eat a lot of potatoes, especially in soup. They like potatoes so much they even serve them alongside rice. If you know where to look you can find bakeries that bake amazingly tasty bread. Fresh, warm bread, mmm. The cuy culture is commonly misunderstood by gringos here in Ecuador. Cuy is a celebration food. Certainly not a staple. A quarter or less is a common serving size, accompanied with lots of achote seasoned potatoes.

    1. “One can buy wild caught shrimp in the market if you know how to ask” Lorenzo, please do tell us how to ask for wild caught shrimp on the market? Thanks!

      1. “Camaron del mar” (shrimp from the ocean) is one way. You’ll notice that shrimp vendors usually have several trays of different size/type shrimp for sale. At least one of those trays usually holds wild caught shrimp. The other trick is to find a vendor who you can trust.

  7. Organic? What about the platoons of men marching up and down the crop rows with sprayers full of pesticides? Is that organic?

  8. P.S.- Corvina is Chilean Sea Bass. It used to be called “Patagonian Tooth fFsh,” but fish mongers changed its name to something more marketable. But then again, when you buy fish stew here, who knows what they threw into it, and called it corvina?

  9. Organic fruit and Vegies? In Ecuador? Not impossible but rather the exception Especially for the nightshade family that are over sprayed with some horrendous pesticides (potatoes, naranjillas, tree tomatoes, and regular tomatoes) but the list is long. Also keep in mind that there is no real regulation or control. In the north illegal pesticides are brought in from Colombia, in the south from Peru. Best thing is to get to know a few farmers who really grow organic and support their production, and keep the consumption of nightshade to a minimum.

  10. Hey ! 90,% of what you write about my country it’s true. But that’s only Cuenca. You have to travel to Esmeraldas or Guayaquil. There’s a lot more to see and eat my friend. If you come to Guayaquil I will take u to the best places where you can eat delicious typical food.

  11. I too am Irish, however I’ve been married to an Ecuadorian for 48 years. I would have to disagree that Ecuadorian’s dislike potatoes. Papa’s con mane’ potatoes with peanut butter sauce & sopita de papas, potato soup, is another long time favorite. The organic vegetables is a major reason the citizens live a long life. My mother in law will turn 100 this June.

  12. The meat here in Ecuador is the absolute worst I have ever eaten. Vegetables and fruits are very good but don’t be naive, because pestisides are used in Ecuador extensively. I also like the pork as long as I insure it is well cooked and I have added my own special vinagar based BBQ sauce.

    1. Hi, this is Rob Gray from GRAN ROCA. I just read this post and…I don’t even know where to start. The fruit that is grown certified organic in Ecuador is exported, that is basically the only way it would be profitable to grow. In fact, basically ALL of the good fruit that is grown organically or conventionally in Ecuador is Exported to countries like the U.S. What is mostly sold here are the rejects, the number 2s, 3s, etc. It is often old and is generally transported unrefrigerated. If sellers tell you that the fruit is organic (not certified), it is highly unlikely true. Ecuadorans, by in large, really don’t know what the Organic Production standards even are.

      When I first came to Ecuador, I too heard stories of how fresh, organic produce was readily available. I remember going to a variety of mercados and other stores and buying fruits and vegetables, taking them home, sampling them, and then, throwing them out! What I believe everyone who talks positively about the the produce in Ecuador is because of its PRICE. If you were charged U.S. prices for what you bought here, you wouldn’t think it was all that good. You have no idea how old things are and much of it is harvested hap-haphazardly where under-ripe, ripe, and over-ripe are found in the same box or bag.

      I have been farming sustainably in Ecuador since 2013. We actually know the organic standards which is not just about chemicals. It about land management, fertilization, water conservation, crop rotation and a whole lot more. I have traveled to almost all parts of Ecuador, the sierra, the oriente, and the coast. I have visited over 100 farms, and you know what, pretty much every one of them said that they were farming organically, even the ones where I discovered canisters of chemicals on their fields! Of those at least 100 farms, I found only ONE that actually knew what organic farming was and was following it.

      I would thus submit that if someone tells you that they are growing organiclly, that you have about a 1% chance of it being true. In general, the people selling it to you don’t actually produce it. They bought it from someone else. How could they know? The person they bought it from told them? Really?

      I participated in a market a few years ago with another farm that claimed the produce was organic. I knew it was not, but I needed to do a little investigation. As it turns out, not only was the produce not organic, the sellers were not even a farm. They were selling stuff from a number of other growers and likely knew that the produce they were selling was not organic. But it gets worse. Because, they also sold to the restaurant owner, and so the restaurant owner told all of his guests that the food was organic.

      In North America, Europe, Japan, Australia, you must be certified organic to use the word “organic” describing your products. Otherwise, you could find yourself in a lot of hot water. In Ecuador, anyone can say their products are organic…and they do.

      Here in Ecuador, food production is mostly about quantity not quality. Bigger and more is better. As my son says, who is an exporter here in Ecuador, the local food market is a race to the bottom. Who can produce the cheapest stuff and still get people to buy it.

      Organic standards are neither about killing every bug in sight nor about wiping out every possible fungus, but about controlling the damage and preventing an infestation. You lose a number of plants when farming organically, and sometimes you lose a whole crop. We recently lost a whole section of potatoes from a fungus because of an overwhelming amount of rain in a relatively short period of time. Yes, there’s a chemical for that, but we don’t use them. Period. The joke that I tell is that the farmers here, don’t use chemicals…unless they need them.

      As for animal products, all of our animals are pastured. Yes, it is more expensive to produce and therefore costs more, but if you want sustainably grown (organic means nothing) meat and dairy products that are as good or better than what you were eating in the U.S., it can be done in Ecuador.

      Finally, the reason I’ve gone on like this, is because when people write articles like the above, it insults the people who are actually trying to do the right thing and cheapens what they do. Some of us are really committed to producing fresh (our fruits and vegetables are harvested in the morning and delivered to the customer in the afternoon only a few hours old), sustainably grown, delicious varieties of nutritious food. Or you could continue to eat the old, tasteless varieties of chemical laden, poorly harvested, cheap food and believe it’s organic.

  13. errrrrr … almost ALL the farmers here use A LOT of pesticides. And the animals are FULL of antibiotics. You’re full unaware. I’d invite you to a few farms, so you can speak of fact.

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