I have to confess, I am a foodie. Although not a chef by any means, I love to cook, and I love to sample local dishes whenever we travel. So Ecuador is a perfect place for me to indulge in this weakness. Not only do I have access to incredibly fresh and healthy produce, meats, and seafood to use in my own kitchen, but there is also a wealth of local and traditional meals to experience. Best of all, even basic dishes have regional variations that make it fun and tasty to experiment wherever you go.
Take for example one of the most basic Ecuadorian foods, the delicious locro de papa, or potato soup. In its simplest and most traditional form, this is a rich and creamy potato soup with a milk and cheese base, served in a bowl with a hunk of queso fresco (a white cheese very common in Ecuador), a few slices of avocado, and maybe a sprinkle of cilantro. From there, the fun begins!
First of all, Ecuador is home to over 200 varieties of potatoes, and Ecuadorian friends tell me it isn’t a real locro unless there are at least three different types of potatoes in it. Which varieties are used, how they are cut or blended in, all give some subtle variations to the soup. Then there are the regional specialties. Here on the coast, it may be served with shrimp or crab added. North of Salinas, in the Manabî province, I’ve had locro with peanuts and peanut butter incorporated. In the highlands, maybe achiote oil is used, giving it a slight yellow/red color, and choclo (corn) may be added, or lima beans.
Wherever I’ve tried locro de papa, I’ve never been disappointed. It is a great “go-to” dish, and an insight into the local culture.
Similarly, I always like to try churrasco when I see it on a menu during our travels around Ecuador. This is a dish to order only if you are hungry – typically, the plate is huge! Churrasco in other South American countries usually refers to a grilled beefsteak, but in Ecuador, it is a full meal. The steak is sliced very thinly and grilled, usually served in a thin sauce of meat juices, onions, and peppers. The steak is topped off with a sunny-side up fried egg. But we aren’t done yet – you get a mound of rice, French fries, a small salad of pickled tomatoes and onions (called a curtido), a fried plantain, half an avocado, and maybe a little choclo for good measure.
Churrasco is always a treat, with each chef varying the spices, and mixing up the side dishes and presentation. Wherever I’ve tried it, I’ve certainly never left the table hungry.
When it comes to variations on a theme, I think the grand prize winner would have to be the humble empanada. Once again, the basic idea is simple; some type of filling served in a pastry shell. But what an incredible number of different empanadas you can find in Ecuador!
Take our favorite local empanada joint, “Pedro’s Empanadas de Verde con Guacamole” for example. The “de Verde” part of their name tells you that their empanadas are stuffed with a base that includes mashed green plantains (the peel is green, not the plantain). Included with that plantain mash you have your choice of cheese, beef, chicken, pork, crab, or my personal favorite, shrimp. The empanadas are fried in oil, and served piping hot with a bowl of guacamole on the side. I always also ask for salsa de aji, which is a spicy topping made from small hot peppers and onions.
In the same restaurant, you can also get empanadas “de maduro”, which are made with the softer yellow plantains and cheese, and served in shells that are crunchier and made with corn meal. Just down the street, is a restaurant that serves their empanadas baked in that same crunchy corn meal shell. I’ve had small empanadas filled with diced vegetables or ground beef; I’ve had large, fluffy pastry shells with just a few chunks of cheese inside (like in the featured photo).
Perhaps my favorite empanada surprise was when we stopped for a break in the mountains between Cuenca and Loja. As we got out of the car to stretch our legs and find the baños, a young lady came up to us with a basket full of brown paper bags. “Quieres empanadas? Cuatro para un dolar!” she said with a smile. We were a little hungry, and at four for a dollar, how could we go wrong? So we bought a bag and gave them a try. They were small triangles about 5 inches long, still warm, and sprinkled with sugar. When we bit into them, they were incredibly light and fluffy, and filled with just a bit of a sweet cheese. Heaven in a brown paper bag!
That’s just three of the culinary delights waiting for you to discover in Ecuador. There are so many more to choose from, but I hope this has at least whet your appetite to come and try a little taste of Ecuador for yourself.
Article originally published by the author in Ecuador Insiders, an International Living publication.