World Food

Three Ecuador Regions Cook up Three Food Cultures

Ecuador does not have one food culture. It has three, and each reflects the uniqueness of life in one of the three distinct regions.
— By John Jacobs

Most countries claim one national food, but that is almost impossible for Ecuador. The country has three regions, each with a different lifestyle to accommodate diverse terrain. The end result is a host of traditional foods made from recipes passed down through the generations. There are favorite dishes, of course, and varieties of maze are found in many recipes. Some food experts call maze a national food, but that diminishes the description of Ecuador's fascinating cuisine.

The country offers a rich array of delicious foods and an abundance of unique flavors that are nothing short of a local art form. Ecuador's visitors are always delighted by the plentiful fruits, soups and stews, and roasted meats, made in a way that only Ecuadorians can master.

United in Hot Sauce
The South American country of Ecuador has three continental regions, and each is quite different from the other two. In the west on the Pacific Ocean is found the coastal lowlands or la Costa. In the center of the country is la Sierra or Andes Mountains region. To the east is el Oriente or the Amazon jungle.

Geography has a big influence on the type of food found in each region. Coastal recipes include, not surprisingly, many seafood dishes. In the Andes mountain region, Ecuadorian dishes include many made with pork and root vegetables. In the Amazon rainforest, the food is quite unique and includes unusual foods like maita, a traditional recipe of tilapia wrapped in local leaves.

It is not surprising that people in each region developed a food culture that reflects available resources and resourcefulness. Common to all Ecuadorian foods is the ability of the regional locals to turn ordinary ingredients into flavorful dishes that delight the taste buds. Actually, there is another common item uniting Ecuadorian dinner tables – anji, a traditional hot sauce.

Brave of Taste Buds
The food in El Oriente is likely defined by the fact the people living in the Amazon jungle were more interested in survival than in developing a documented cuisine.

When visiting the Amazon rainforest, the brave of taste buds can try foods like stewed guanta. A guanta is a large jungle rodent, similar to a guinea pig. In the name of survival, the truly authentic jungle dish is made of stewed guanta with tomatoes, vegetables, beef, and spices, and it is served with rice and yucca. There is no need to worry though because restaurants like the Amazon Rainforest Lodge Restaurant offers regional dishes like maito and bolón de verde which are fried green plantain dumplings stuffed with cheese, chorizo or chicharrones (pork rinds).

Moving on to a new region in search of delights, la Costa offers plenty of seafood dishes cooked as encocado or with coconut in some form. Coconut frequently becomes a seasoning or a base for soups and stews. Tigrillo is another regional dish that is made with green banana cooked, crumbled, and mixed with eggs and cheese. Bananas are found in many dishes, like arroz marinero, which is made with a mixture of seafoods, garlic, onion, and several spices.

In la Costa, soup is popular, too, like sancocho made with beef, corn, banana and yucca. Ceviche is made in different ways, but it is a chilled soup made with a citrus juice and fruit. It can be made with or without fish. Traditional ceviche is raw fished "cooked" by lime juice acidity and includes other ingredients like red onions, tomatoes, orange juice, tomato juice and bell pepper.

In the la Sierra region, potatoes are used in various recipes in unexpected ways. For example, tortillas are made out of potatoes and then filled with something like pork meat. Llapingachos, which originated in the highlands but are now found throughout Ecuador, are small potato and cheese pancakes served with sausage, eggs or roasted guinea pig. Locro de papa is a potato and cheese soup that is made flavorful with onions, garlic, achiote, and cilantro and frequently served with avocado. The adventurous traveler can try librillo, which is cooked and chopped cow stomach lining served with rice.

Roasted to Perfection
Meat and chicken dishes are found throughout Ecuador.

For example, the Ecuadorian churrasco is thinly sliced grilled steak that is topped with a fried egg and served with sides like sliced avocado, rice, and plantains. Seco de chivo is a thick Ecuadorian goat stew served with rice and fried plantains.

Cuy is a traditional dish reflecting a cultural history before cattle were introduced to the country. Cuy is guinea pig which are found in all the regions. It is not a pet, like Westerners think of guinea pigs, but rather a main source of food about the size of a rabbit. Ecuadorians roast guinea pig and whole pig with great skill and both are found as street food, as well as food in homes. Though Americans tend to be a little put off by the sight of a whole pig, this is an Ecuadorian experience that would leave a big gap in the food experience if not tried. Street food showcases whole pigs that have had the skin browned, and pieces are sliced off and cooked for customers.

Many recipes are cooked with chicken. Llapingachos, mentioned earlier, can be served with chicken. Seco de pollo is chicken stew that makes practical use of older and tougher hens because everything is cooked slowly. The stew includes onions, peppers, garlic, tomatoes, and a host of spices and herbs.

Going Tropical
So what about the fruits? There are many fruits that most Westerners never hear of, like the uvilla or golden berry, or the naranjilla or little orange. Travelers roaming Ecuador will find many recipes include tropical fruits like banana, mango, and atún which is called prickly pear in other parts of the world.

Some fruits, like the tart-tasting tomate de árbol, is used mostly in beverages. Fruits and spices are generously used in drinks like canelazo, a cinnamon spiced rum, and colada morada, a spiced fruit and berry drink.

Ecuador offers food that takes people by surprise. The country is small in size but big in flavorful dishes. Each place visited offers a menu of unusual dishes in restaurants and through street vendors. One thing is certain – it is a trip for making food memories.