As is often the way when travelling, my daily lifestyle in Cuenca tends to revolve around food. More specifically, the time of day and my location in the city dictates what exactly I’ll be eating.
So there’s a strong likelihood that a bowl of fruit salad will be sat in front of me at 10:20 each morning at school; at least one spoonful of chilli sauce will be eaten at 13:30 at my host family’s kitchen table; and a chocolate brownie ball is always in my eager hands by 5 in the afternoon. It’s a necessary treat for finishing work.
One of the nicest things about living with a host family and spending my days working is developing this type of routine; it reminds me that you’re able to find familiarity wherever you are.
But aside from my growing routine of eatables, there’s still a veritable plethora of Ecuadorian food I’ve made it my mission to try. Most are delicious; some are less so – but all are extremely interesting.
A plate of pig
Pork has never been my favourite meat. While I love bacon, and go crazy over a sausage sandwich, a hunk of roast pork isn’t an immediate temptation. But then I arrived in Ecuador, and was presented with a plate of pig.
And suddenly everything changed.
Maybe it’s because the meat is so wonderfully tender. Maybe it’s because dining on a plate of pig isn’t just a meal: it involves a certain amount of browsing, bartering, people watching and very sticky fingers (no cutlery here, folks!).
The only place to eat a plate of pig is at the market – usually on the top floor, giving you the chance to scrutinise the customers and proprietors of the stalls below. Once you’ve chosen the pig you’d like to dine from (looking at the posters hanging above each stall to help you decide), the woman accompanying said pig enquires how many dollars worth of pig you’d like to eat?
By this point you’re getting overwhelmed by how many times ‘pig’ is mentioned – but it’s worth it. When a plate piled high with fresh meat slides its way onto your table, you know you’re onto a good thing.
What do Ecuadorians eat?
Plates of pig usually come with a generous helping of mote, corn kernels which have been boiled and peeled, as well as two or three llapingachos, a kind of mashed potato balled up and then lightly fried. Then you grab a spoonful of aji, a tomato based chilli sauce which has a permanent place on every Ecuadorian table, and drizzle it lovingly over the entire plate.
Well, if you’re anything like me you do; but lots of people aren’t so keen on the heat.
Aji is so popular because a lot of of Ecuadorian food has quite a mild flavour. My host family – or, rather, the three male members of the family – are head over heels in love with this hot sauce. It’s ladled over every component of their meals, and, because I enjoy the smug satisfaction on their faces when I take some too, I’ve now started to become equally obsessed.
It’s also standing in as a replacement for my need to grind pepper on every foodstuff I eat – which I sadly can’t do in Ecuador, because there’s a distinct lack of pepper at every table I’ve eaten at in the last two months.
Salt is another issue; most Ecuadorians pour salt liberally over their meals at the table, as well as during the cooking process. Some of my friends have even complained about overly salty salad being served to them at their host houses.
I’m seriously lucky with my host family’s taste in food. They favour freshly squeezed juice at every meal, a delicious and healthy range of meats and rice, and, fundamentally, they enjoy their lettuce unsalted. Plus they have a thing for good cheese, which is a dangerous indulgence for me; seeing them taking tinfoil parcels from the fridge and unwrapping huge chunks of parmesan and gruyere is absolutely my favourite kind of food porn.
This apparent cheese appreciation also a saving grace for Ecuador, which has been woefully lacking (who have woefully let me down) in the typical companion foodstuff: the bread department.
Where is all the breaded goodness?
I am a bit of a carb lover – give me a four cheese pizza or a plate of pasta smothered in sauce, and I will be forever yours. Once I’ve finished licking the plate, anyway. This love of doughy goodness also manifests in the form of an intrinsic desire for good bread; crusty, chewy, grainy and squishy, as long as it tastes good, I’m essentially living in the bakery.
Plus Ecuador lays claim to possibly the most adorable bread-related product I’ve ever heard of; small bread rolls with a small amount of slightly scorched cheese covering the top, named rodillas de cristo. Because they clearly look exactly like the knees of Christ… So when I stepped over the first panaderia threshold, and realised how many different breads cost as little as 25 cents each, I was in heaven.
And then I took a bite of a delicious looking roll, to find it dry, mealy and almost stale. Misery, thy name is disappointing bread.
Since that day, I’ve been overly cautious with what Ecuadorian bread I eat; but it does seem like it’s a pretty common problem. The only place where the rolls are surprisingly fresh tasting is at the bakery opposite my afternoon placement – and this place also poses a problem. Not because of its bread, though…
All things chocolatey and delicious
This bakery, like most other shops of every kind in Cuenca, sells a surprisingly large array of sweet treats, as well as baked goods: ice cream, cookies, sweets and cakes.
While I’m not the biggest ice cream aficionado, I do have a slight hankering for anything resembling a brownie. And the tray covered in little mouthfuls of chocolate brownie balls, in turn covered in chocolate icing and coloured sprinkles, are simply too much temptation to resist.
There is so much ice cream in this city it’s slightly ridiculous! And often it’s combined with chocolate sprinkles, brownie pieces, sugary sauces – and even, in the case of one centrally located store, an imitation Cold Stone Creamery station, where various sweet treats of your choice are smashed up inside your chosen ice cream. We’ve had to start avoiding walking past it now because our minimal amount of clothing won’t appreciate the overstretched waistlines of one pair of jeans apiece…
The meals that didn’t past the test
Sadly, of course, there are always going to be a few dishes that you can’t quite stomach.
There was the palm heart ceviche we tried in Quito – marinated overnight in pure orange juice to give it a overwhelmingly acidic sweetness – and the numerous bowls of chicken soup, complete with soft and fatty chicken claw protruding from the inner depths, that I haven’t been too fond of.
And, weirdly enough, one of the worst things I’ve eaten has been a pitiful substitute for ketchup – a somewhat watery yet also spicy tomato tasting liquid, which is a nasty surprise when you scoop up a happy forkful and realise its simply not quite what you were expecting.
But the biggest challenge of all is still to come; the Ecuadorian piece de resistance that has most foreigners gritting their teeth and attempting to swallow.
Known in Ecuador as cuy, it’s seen as a delicacy, usually costs at least $20 in a restaurant and is often ordered as part of a celebratory meal. So I why haven’t eaten cuy yet?
I never owned guinea pigs when I was younger, so I don’t have a deep-rooted affection for the little guys. But I figured it was probably better to wait until I was in an actual restaurant and didn’t run the risk of getting incredibly sick from street guinea pig. The women roasting the poor claw-stretching rodents in chalky white embers at the markets may not be charging $20, but you could still regret the purchase in a number of other ways!
Plus it seems like one of those meals you have to try en masse, complete with lots of over dramatic reactions and plenty of photos – and until we get back from Peru, a lot of my friends are broke. Guinea pigs aren’t exactly part of the budget.
Eating on the cheap
In fact, eating in has become something of the norm for us now. There’s an element of economised living afoot in Cuenca, and it actually makes things more fun. When we fancy a big meal in a familiar cooking style, we head to the market and pick up mounds of fresh vegetables for a couple of dollars – and thanks to two friends renting an apartment, we have a kitchen at our disposal.
Hot dogs have also become something of an obsession with our group. Possibly because they’re a cheap, filling snack food that isn’t made of guinea pig.
And living with a budget in mind means we search out the bargains. So instead of heading straight for the nearest sit down place when we’re hungry (tables equal VAT!), there’s a likelihood we’ll go for the street stalls instead – braving the rumours of dodgy stomachs in the name of a cheap meal.
Food means people
Most of all, experiencing new foods in a new country is one of the best ways possible to meet new people. Having the briefest of Spanish conversations with the woman serving you meat and potatoes while you sit on wooden benches is infinitely more fun than being handed an English menu in a fancy restaurant.
But the best foodie moments have been the most spontaneous of all; wandering through the market with arms full of ripe avocados, six people busy chopping spring onions and tomatoes in the kitchen, and a group of friends indulging in a saucepan-sized batch of freshly homemade guacamole.
Sitting on the roof under the Ecuadorian sun, and indulging in deliciousness.