For the foreign traveler, Ecuador provides an adventure into sampling a selection of colorful cuisine, some of which is older than even the Incas. Here are the foods most traditional to the area that you must try when you visit.
A very hardy, chunky, sacred stew, the tradition is to serve fanesca only once a year – the week before Easter Sunday. Among other ingredients it features figleaf gourd (“sambo”), squash, and a variety of beans – 12 in total – and grains including lentils, corn, fava beans, parsley and various herbs. Each of the 12 different beans represents an apostle, and a cut of salt cod alludes to Jesus. It is generally consumed only during lunchtime, in the presence of friends and family.
“Chugchucaras” is a word in the Quechua, the Pre-Colombian language of the locals that translates into “chest-feet-skin,” with said parts belonging specifically to a pig. In addition to the chunks of deep fried pork, pork rinds, and pig’s feet, however, the platter features boiled hominy (coarse ground corn), small potatoes, toasted corn, plantain and a small, cheese-filled empanada. There’s an urban legend that the pig itself is cooked with the waters of a local fountain, San Martin, to provide it a “miraculous” flavor.
Guaguas de pan, or “bread children,” prepared during Day of the Dead celebrations, is another exotic Ecuadorian food that has a unique religious association. These sweet pastries filled with jelly are meant to resemble infants tightly wrapped in swaddling clothes – though it might also be a distant echo of the Pre-Colombian tradition of mummifying the dead. Thus, not all pastries are consumed, but taken and left on the tombstones of the dearly departed. The guaguas – another Quechuan word – are served with a thick, sweet, brewed purple beverage known as a colada morada, featuring blueberry, blackberry, pineapple rind and sugars and spices.
The quinoa grain has been a staple of the Andes going back to even pre-Incan society. The most commonly sold and consumed quinoa is ivory quinoa, though black and red quinoa is almost as popular; studies suggest there are as many as three thousand different varieties. Increasingly attracting attention to the wider world due to its high concentration of protein and lack of gluten, there as many ways to serve up quinoa in Ecuador as there are to serve up rice, though many enjoy simple quinoa soup, made with onion, butter, and salt.
Commonly sold on street corners, a large plantain – a cousin of the banana – cut down the middle, filled with a slice of mozzarella and roasted over a grill has been a popular, inexpensive – USD$1 – and surprisingly nutritious fast food for decades in Ecuador.
Ceviche – a cold serving of marinated seafood – is ubiquitous in any Latin America nation that borders an ocean, but Ecuadorian ceviche has its own slight distinctions. Like Peruvian ceviche, it features seabass and shrimp. Unlike the Peruvian variety, it’s served along with the very juices it has been prepared in. It is usually served with toasted corn, popcorn, and/or plantain chips.
Llapingachos – pronounced ya-peen-gah-choes – technically are friend potato patties stuffed with cheese, but they are also sometimes prepared with flour made from yuca, a root vegetable. The patties are also served with peanut sauce. The dish originated in the city of Ambato, and is especially popular with people living in Ecuador’s sierras.
Made from a combination of milk, sugar, and a ground white corn native to Ecuador, morocho – a thick, sweet beverage, like the aforementioned colada morada – is commonly sold on street corners and open-air markets. Prepared with vegetables and with less sugar, it can also be offered up as a soup.
Similar to the Mexican tamale, quimbolitos offer ground corn or occasionally quinoa, wrapped in palm leaves and steam-cooked. They often have raisins and are offered as a dessert treat, but they can just as well include beef, chicken, pepper, and a diced hard-boiled egg and be served as a main meal.
Made from crushed green (meaning not-ripe) plantain, a bolon de verde – which roughly translates into “green ball” – is like a large dumpling. Lovers of fried food should relish a bolon de verde, since the core ingredient is fried once to soften it, before being mashed and mixed with pork and/or cheese, formed into a ball, then fried again.
The yuca root – also known as cassava – is the third most popular source of carbohydrates in the world, even if largely unknown in North America and Europe. Fried yuca is as common as French fries. The gluten-free starch derived from the yuca root is used to make tapioca.