Mexican Mozzarella and Chinese Potatoes

It is true that there are some unusual things to get used to when you choose to live in another country. Speaking a different language is something that is high on most people’s list in this regard, but I have found myself noticing some of the more subtle and interesting differences. Here in Ecuador for example, consider something as basic as food.

Of course there is an adjustment to be made in the types of food available here, and this is really a fun and healthy adjustment. You will get used to a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables available all year long that you might rarely see in the States, if at all. Things like kiwi, mangoes, papayas, dragon fruit, and more are now routine market items to us, and we have become spoiled by the plethora of juices offered in restaurants.

But what I find most interesting is the local twist that is put on some ethnic foods served in Ecuador. Chinese food is an excellent case in point. We have a restaurant in the food court at the El Paseo Mall which has the dishes you would expect to find – shrimp fried rice, sweet and sour pork, chow mien – but they are all served with French fries and plantains. For someone who used to eat in China Town in Washington D.C., it’s a little disconcerting at first to find potatoes next to your egg roll, or to be offered chifles (fried plantain chips) with your won ton soup. You can find more “authentic” menus in some of the bigger cities like Guayaquil and Quito, but even the more metropolitan areas are not immune to this culture-creep.

My wife and I once had a wonderful meal in a Mexican restaurant in Quito. The first allowance to make was when we ordered margaritas, which were made with maracuya (passion fruit) juice. Not classic Mexican, but very tasty. The real surprise, however, was when Rita was deciding what type of burrito to order. The picture on the menu showed some sort of white sauce on the inside of the burrito. When we asked the waiter what it was, he smiled and proudly said “mozzarella cheese!”

‘Kay.

Rita decided to try it anyway, and it was in fact delicious, even though the final surprise was that the burrito had been quickly deep-fried after wrapping, so it was in a crunchy shell.

U.S. fast food chains must also make some adjustments in Ecuador. I’m happy to say that we are over two hours away from the closest McDonald’s, but one fast food chain you cannot escape in Ecuador is KFC. Ecuadorians are just crazy about KFC. If you walk through any food court in any mall in Ecuador, you will see a few people scattered around every restaurant stand, but a crowd 4 or 5 deep in front of the KFC. The most popular meal, however, is not one you will find in the American franchise. It is the lunch special, consisting of one or two pieces of chicken, a mound of rice, some lentils, the omnipresent fried plantains, and a small salad of shredded lettuce, onion and cucumber. This meal goes for $1.99 – $2.99 in most places.

Granted, this is probably much healthier for you than chicken and fries, but it is still a little surprising the first time you see someone walking back from the counter with a plate that is mostly rice and beans. I could go on; hamburgers served with guacamole instead of mayonnaise, “hot dog and fries” means hot dogs sliced and served on top of fries with cheese, order a side salad and get a huge plate bigger than your meal, and many more surprises.

Dining can be an adventure, and I’m happy to say that after almost four years, we are still being pleasantly surprised in restaurants. Here’s one final example from our trip to Quito, this time dealing with local food that we thought we understood pretty well. We were having lunch at a small restaurant at the Mitad del Mundo, the Middle of the World Park. We were trying to eat light, so we each ordered the locro de papas, which is a wonderful potato soup. That didn’t seem like quite enough, so we also ordered two empanadas from the appetizer menu. They were only $1.25 each, so it looked safe. We chatted for a while, and after a few minutes, the waitress brought us two small empanadas, each about two inches long, and a small bowl of dipping sauce.

They were very tasty, stuffed with a mix of rice and chopped vegetables, but small. We joked that now we understood why they were only $1.25, and decided we would order two more when the waitress returned with our soups. Much to our surprise, when the waitress returned, it was not with our soups. It was with our real empanadas. It turned out the first two were just a complimentary snack while we waited. The empanadas we ordered were over 6 inches long, and when we broke them open they were oozing with melted cheese and spices. What’s worse, the darn things were delicious! So much for our “light lunch”! By the time we finished the soup as well, which was also fantastic, laden with big hunks of cheese and avocado, we waddled out, ready for a nap.

All I can say to sum up, is when you come to Ecuador, or really any foreign country, be prepared for interesting differences in just about everything you see and experience. I guarantee you will sometimes be surprised, but you can learn to love it as much as we do if you can just go with it and accept the Mexican mozzarella and the Chinese potatoes.

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