As we near the end of our travels in Ecuador, a resounding theme that crops up is that whatever you think about Ecuador is probably totally wrong. From culture, style, economy, sophistication and definitely food, Ecuador is far more than that little country in South America (or Africa as many people think apparently), it’s so much more.
So what about the food? The principle philosophy here is to keep it simple, keep it fresh and just put some nice food on the plate. Sounds obvious right? We’ve all sadly seen it before though, a cook who thinks they’re far more sophisticated than they are; trying to do something a bit too tricky. Whether it’s a greasy spoon serving pastry or bogan Australia trying to do a risotto (my pet hate), the outcome is inevitably flavoured with disaster. In Ecuador the culinary egos are far more in check and the result is everything that a travelling heart desires, unique regional delicacies underpinned by an abundance of clean, fresh, healthy food. The range and diversity also embraces the scope of the food pyramid in relatively proportional fashion. Fruit and vegetables are abundant, plenty of lean meat, seafood and grains are only imbalanced by a propensity for carbohydrates but that’s really a slight slant.
A special mention must also be paid to Menu del dia, Menu of the day. Nearly every establishment typically serves soup, salad, meat and rice with either a drink or small dessert. On one hand this is a well balanced, tasty meal with the Ecuadorian soups often stealing the day, good option right? Yes, but what makes it a great option is that it’s often $2-3; for the lot, amazing! We routinely stuff ourselves at a big lunch with a Menu del dia and one more elaborate dish, routinely a mass of seafood for around $10. I’m reluctant to harp on about money too much but the value here is outrageous. Good food on holiday often comes with a price tag and or inside knowledge. It’s a true feature of Ecuador that good food is simply what food is, not a specialty or something that needs to be discovered.
So what culinary journeys caught our fancy? Glad you asked.
Market food is always interesting and the central market in Quito certainly delivered on all fronts. Tuna soup stacked with vegies and a delicious taste was amazingly capped by the fried fish. This massive slab of fluffy white fish has a crispy fried crust and epitomises everything light, fresh and moorish about a good piece of seafood. It also comes with a tangy prawn ceviche salsa that gets lavishly poured on top, it’s salty, fresh and delicious. As with any food it’s the obliteration of expectation that crystallises memory most firmly. In this respect we have a total winner. We both ate shamelessly for $6.50.
Surprisingly enough, we had totally respectable Italian. Again embodying the ethos that seems to be Ecuadorian cuisine, less is more, simple wins that day. I guess that is why Italian kind of suits, with simple flavours and good produce unburdened by elaborate interfering techniques, Ecuador shows not only a propensity for its own food but a worldly appreciation with sympathetic appropriation. We had pizzas with thin crust unburdened by that foul obsession with cheap cheese, pasta not swimming in liquid mush and it all tasted a treat.
On the drinks side, holy crap how good are Ecuadorian Mojitos! The saccharine freshness of a regular Mojito is layered with a sourness from a far more present lime injection. Additionally, Ecuador doesn’t only use mint, there’s a somewhat related plant that only grows in the Andes and it’s the business. The only comparison I can make to my palate is that it’s like a Thai green curry that uses proper Thai basil rather than regular basil, it’s bigger, bolder, better and simply tastier, it’s a new thing entirely and at $2 it’s nothing short of a weapon of mass consumption.
With some pretty delicate stomachs after our time in Colombia we were unfortunately not brave enough to sample a bunch of regional delicacies but there is one that you simply can’t go past. In Cuenca we took the plunge and finally had Cuy, guinea pig. We were lucky enough to have a back stage view at a small rotisserie over an open fire, the poor little guinea pigs skewered and spinning for approximately and hour. Served with simple potatoes the Cuy is like a super strong flavoured rabbit. Served whole, little claws, head and all, the flesh is gamey and rich, if not abundant. The sinewy little critters aren’t a big meal but the crispy skin makes up for it, there’s no real comparison, it’s weird, tasty and potent, wow!
Travelling is of course an opportunity to immerse into and experience a style of living that differs from your own and one of the most indicative windows to culture is food. On that score, Ecuador is sophisticated, elegant, simple, fresh and knows exactly what it wants to be. As a perfect parallel to the country itself, Ecuadorian food destroys myths, embarrasses expectations and educates the naive, which we were. These gluttonous little piggies are most definitely enjoying this cultural immersion far more than the poor little piggies on our plate.