It’s Holy Week in Quito, and that means Alberto Alava is looking serious.
The dark, mustachioed chef has his cap tilted back, concentrating intently on his work. That work includes peeling a multitude of different grains (including fava beans and chochos, a thick-skinned legume typical of the Andes), soaking strips of salt cod in milk, and measuring out exactly the right dollop of cream to stir into the delicacy that’s currently in progress, a thick concoction called fanesca that’s right on the borderline between soups and stews and that’s traditionally prepared only during Ecuador’s Easter season.
It’s a dish folks from Quito—Alava’s home town—take very seriously. So when the version served at ¡Hasta la Vuelta, Señor!, the restaurant where the intense-eyed chef works, won an award from the multinational Universidad de las Américas, it really meant something.
“It’s all about pampering the customer,” Alava says.
Pampering, it turns out, is exactly what Ecuadorian food does best. With such pleasures on offer as kid-goat stews spiked with cumin and Andean corn beer, prawns seethed in coconut milk, and cheese-laced potato cakes so light they seem to float atop the buttery avocado slices they accompany, Ecuador boasts some of the most comforting of all comfort foods.
But if such platos típicos do the trick of waking up the taste buds, so far, the country that makes them is, gastronomically speaking, a bit of a sleeper.
The problem is partly PR. Among foodies, the word has long been out on cities like Lima or Buenos Aires, where the culinary-minded regularly go to savor a fragrant ceviche, or a bife de chorizo direct from the source. Gastro-fests like Peru’s Mistura or Argentina’s Feria Masticar get heavy press, turning them into pilgrimage destinations for aficionados. In Ecuador, by contrast, a lack of industry organization has caused a cuisine that’s remarkably complex to remain in the shadows—even, sometimes, among Ecuadorians themselves.
All that might be about to change, however.
2010 seems to have marked the turning point. Since then, cuisiniers and culture ministers both have been working overtime to get Ecuador’s edibles into the spotlight. From food fairs to cookbooks to gastro-tourism, traditional and social media have been busy bringing glad tidings to foodies everywhere. And as the awards and testimonials come pouring in, more and more gourmets are showing up in the Andean nation, curious about its centuries-old culinary tradition.
The result: today Quito and Guayaquil appear poised to assume their place among South America’s alimentary all-stars—a gastronomic boom waiting to happen, all thanks to the genius of chefs like Alava.
Fernando Polanco Plaza, the owner of a traditional hacienda (and five-star restaurant) outside Quito, states the case bluntly:
“The stars of Latin American food are Mexico, Peru, and then Ecuador, with its mega-diverse ecosystems. Our food has been a secret for too long.”
Identity through Food
“Diversity is the key,” Carlos Gallardo is explaining. Immaculately clad in his white double-breasted coat and black apron, the master chef-turned-professor is resting his clasped hands on his desk, an image of repose.
“What Ecuador has that no other country has is diversity of products. Here the products run in the hundreds, while the recipes are in the thousands.”
He pauses in his exposition, adjusting his clear plastic goggles.
“And obviously, just as tourists want to see beautiful landscapes when they come here, they also want to experience that diversity of foods.”
In Ecuador’s case, experiencing the diversity of foods is experiencing the landscape, if only indirectly. Like its neighbors Peru and Colombia, Ecuador consists of three regions: coast, Andean sierra, and the tract of Amazon jungle Ecuadorians call el oriente. These three regions have evolved strikingly different cultures, and the culinary diversity that Gallardo, a Dean of Gastronomy at the Universidad de las Américas, has dedicated his career to studying grows directly out of that varied geography.
Take fruits, for example. On the coast, the big staples are coconuts and bananas, lots and lots of bananas (for years, Ecuador was the archetypal “banana republic”), as well as the more exotic passion fruits, papayas, guavas, and guanabanas. In the oriente, meanwhile, the jungle explodes with products virtually unknown to foreigners, ranging from tree tomatoes and palm shoots to the untranslatable coconas, borojó, and pitahaya.
When you factor in the custard apples, grapes, and lúcumas of the sierra, you have a country where juice bars can have menus that run three pages or more.
It’s this variety that Gallardo and his peers are trying to capitalize on. In 2014, the crusading chef won a prestigious Gormand World Cookbook Award for his Ecuador Culinario, a kind of foodie Motorcycle Diaries in which he travels all 24 departments of his country, collecting countless recipes and listening to people talk about what they eat. The same jury also awarded a top prize to his countryman Édgar León, whose Soups: Ecuadorian Identity recounts how citizens of the Andean nation can choose from over 700 traditional broths—one a night for more than two years, without repeats.
The goal of all this compiling? To build a national identity through food.
“When Ecuador became a republic,” Gallardo explains, “French food was queen. That was a little exasperating, since part of the identity of the new republic should have been our food. But that wasn’t the case….Criollo food, which was a mix of indigenous, black, and Amazon elements, was banished. At other times, Spanish food was the rage. So we’re still trying to get our culinary identity out there.
“However, constructing that identity can take decades. For example, Peru needed a continuous effort of over 30 years. Mexico took 70 years. Meanwhile, in Europe, France took 100.
“We hope that within 15 or 20 years Ecuador will have its place in world gastronomy.”
There’s currently a big push from the academy, government, and private enterprise to make that hope a reality. Gallardo currently has over 1,000 students in his gastronomy program at UDLA, and a group led by Ana Teresa Pérez and Homero Miño at Universidad de San Francisco de Quito, a rival institution, are following his investigative lead, with their exhaustive research project issuing in the tome Ecuador: Yesterday’s Traditions for Today’s Table.
Meanwhile, the government is also betting heavily on the food sector, with massive subsidies for major industries like shrimp, bananas, and fruits. Last year, for example, the country’s cacao growers received $70 million, in an effort to further production of chocolate that many consider to be the world’s best.
With so much investment of money and talent, it’s no wonder that gastro-tourism is spiking. New restaurants are sprouting like jaca fruits in Quito and Guayaquil. Gallardo estimates that in the coming decade, they could account for half the entire tourist sector—15 percent of Ecuador’s total GDP.
“Today the tourists are coming to Ecuador, and what they want is Ecuadorian food,” says Gallardo.
What to Try
So, what to try, amidst this boom of national flavors? One key is to take Gallardo’s hint and hit up delicacies from all three geographic regions—coast, sierra, jungle—as you seek out the essence of el sabor ecuatoriano. Here’s a list of platos típicos to get you started.
Encocado de camarones
“Encocado” means “made with coconut,” and the hairy fruits are a key ingredient in much coastal cooking. You can find interpretations of this dish with fish or other seafood, but the shrimp version capitalizes on the succulence of Ecuador’s prawns, which are here combined with red and green pepper, garlic, and the shredded cocos themselves to produce a spicy tropical delight. Try it with patacones—fried green plantains.
Locro de papa
Ecuadorians are fanatics when it comes to soups, and nowhere more so than with this creamy potato-and-cheese concoction from the Andes, which coats your innards and warms your soul. Made with garlic, cumin, achiote, eggs, and avocado, it’s the perfect insulation against cold Quito nights.
Unlike the Peruvian version, Ecuador’s ceviches frequently feature cooked, as opposed to raw, seafood, and have a soupier consistency. They also employ tomatoes and other ingredients to soften the citric edge, and come with toasted corn and patacones. Shrimp ceviche is popular, but don’t pass over the versions with fish, oysters, octopus, tuna, and beans.
At their best, these potato pancakes are so delicately laced with onions and cheese that each bite-sized morsel offers a complex range cluster of flavors. Combine them with eggs and chorizo (spicy sausage), and you have a breakfast (or lunch) you’ll want to eat every day. Try them with a fresh-squeezed juice, like pineapple or papaya.
Don’t let the name fool you: this pork dish is braised, not fried, in a base of orange juice, cumin, and onion. It’s especially popular on weekends in the sierra, and you’ll find some of the best versions of it in small villages outside Quito, where the local señoras stir it in huge copper and brass pans called pailas. Try it with llapingachos and avocado.
Seco de chivo
Ecuador’s version of goat stew is darker, more sensuous than its Peruvian counterpart, combining chicha (fermented corn beer) with brown sugar and a fruit called naranjilla for a taste that’s both earthy and delicate. The resulting mix is cooked for hours over low heat, and served with yellow rice and avocado. A must-try.
Caldo de bagra
This delicacy from the oriente combines freshwater catfish, cilantro, garlic, tomato, pepper, and yucca in a nourishing soup that’s a meal unto itself. Many jungle dwellers swear by its restorative properties.
To cap off your celebration of Ecuador’s cuisine, there’s no better drink than this national version of the hot toddy, which features fruit juice—typically blackberries or maracuyá—mixed with cinnamon. But be careful: the sugarcane alcohol packs a wallop. ¡Salud!