The Gastronomy of Ecuador

13/Enero/2012 | 12:48

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Ecuador is undoubtedly the most under-appreciated region of South America for discovering delectable cuisine. 

Often described as a "mestizaje"  Ecuadorian food is a mixture  of influences and ingredients that have simmered   along a time continuum of more than 500 years since the Spanish Conquest.

If you are new in town, let us guide you through some of the fundamentals and must try dishes of Ecuador.

Home Grown

Most people know the principal native ingredients of the Andes: potato, corn, quinoa, avocado, yucca, and chili peppers (ajis).  Add to that the rich seafood naturally found at the coast and the fruits of the tropical regions of Ecuador and we have perhaps the most colorful and nutritious cornucopia on the globe.

But recent trends in gastronomy have begun to re-discover other traditional ingredients that were somehow forgotten through colonization.  Products like mashua and jicama - local tubers and legumes – have found their way into some of the finest kitchens of Ecuador along with herbs like ortiga, and the chocho bean - a staple for generations in Ecuador.

And traditional meats still have a place on the table of many Ecuadorians.  Though repulsive to some, the "cuy," or guinea pig, can be a daily nourishment or a delicacy. As a herbivore the guinea pig is comparable to rabbit. According to INIAP it is raised in more than 700,000 homes throughout Ecuador, a country that consumes almost 50 million guinea pigs a year.  Cuy can be grilled, baked, or fried and is  easily found in the popular markets as well as the  finer restaurants of Quito.

Imported Flavors

When the Spanish arrived they brought with them new products, such as wheat and other grains, which gave birth to leavened bread.  They introduced cattle not only as a meat source, but as the basis for dairy products.  Honey bees, chickens, and pork accompanied peas, onions, and cabbage as well as new nuts (almonds, peanuts) and fruits (apples, pears, papaya). 

The settlers brought not only new ingredients but new methods for preparing and combining them with native products.

The technique of making soups, or stews came from Europe - a French influence that made its way across the ocean and eventually transformed local cuisine.

Europeans brought milk products, combined them with the native potato and eventually produced the one soup that gives the Ecuadorian Andes its identity: locro.

But Ecuadorian soup traditions merely begin with the locro.  They end  in every corner of every province with caldos, cazuelas, repe, sancocho, viche, aguado, timbushca, and the "sopas de bolas verdes.


Though Ecuador is only the size of the state of New Mexico, it has a cuisine which  is perhaps richer than that found in all 50 of the United States. Its breadth is in the distinctive regions that characterize the country, principally the Andean and coastal zones.

Up and down the sierra the ingredients used in Andean food are the same: hearty grains, starches, and legumes are combined with popluar meats, principally pork.   Basic pork prepartions include "fritada" or fried pork, and  "hornado," a slowly, cooked, pulled pork dish.  Each dish has its own accompaniments, which can vary from town to town.

Latacunga is famous for its "chugchucarras," a fritada dish served with hominy (mote), fried banana, potato tortillas, corn, and toasted corn.  In the southern Andes near Cuenca the "Fritadas de Certag" are served with boiled egg, sausage, mote, potato.

Llapingachos – potato tortillas filled with cheese and onion - are one of those dishes that has Ecuador stamped all over it. 

Throughout the sierra  empanadas, Ecuador's stuffed pastries, are ubiquitous.  There are three basic preparations:

1) Empanadas de viento (wind empanadas) are made of wheat flower dough,  filled with cheese and deep fried.

2) Empanadas de morocho are corn flour tortillas filled with rice and ground beef and also deep friend.

3) And empanadas de verde (green empanadas) are stuffed with cheese and made from the flour of one of Ecuador's principal food exports: bananas.

The banana, or plantain, is a staple in both the mountains and the coast.   The maqueño, a large banana with rounded edges, can be boiled, fried, or baked.  The "platanos verdes" (unripe, green plantains) and "platanos maduros" (ripe bananas) are cooked and fried.  

The green fried bananas can take the shape of "chifles" or banana chips, a common Ecuadorian snack.   Patacones are green plantains flattened into round crunchy disks and served with fish.  They are commonly served at the coast where the regionalization of Ecuadorian cuisine is perhaps most prevalent.

Travel to Esmeraldas, Ecuador's most northern coastal province, and Manabi, its border to the south, and you see how quickly the flavors change. Both are seafood havens, but Esmeraldas is defined by its "encocados," coconut milk mixed with all imaginable seafood ingredients.  Manabi is famous for "sal prieta," a seasoning made from two key ingredients: peanuts and corn, often ground together pepper, garlic, cilantro, or achiote to give it flavor and coloring.

Further south we find traditions such as the "encebollado" of Guayas Province, a hot soup made with a base of fish and yucca that also includes onion and herb and a touch of aji.

Throughout the coast the one plate everyone shares in common is ceviche, a seafood dish with a distinct citric-based sauce.  Usually made with lime and served cold with accompaniments, ceviche may have fish, shrimp, oysters, or a mix of ingredients.   The traditional  coastal prepration  has also made its way to the Andes where the ocean ingredients are replaced with sierra products like  hearts of palm or chocho beans.

Local drinks

Identity comes in the form of liquid, too.  Fruit juices come naturally at the tropics.   Virtually all establishments have 6-12  flavors to choose from including: mora, naranjilla, guanabana, watermelon, papaya, tree tomato, guayaba, piña, taxo, maracuyá (passion fruit).

Chicha is a traditional drink derived from the fermentation of corn or other grains.  It can be prepared as an alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage and dates back to Incan cultures.

Canelazo, a hot drink of cinnamon and sugar and mixed with alcohol, is a perfect respite from the  the cold, sierra nights.

Horchata is a very traditional drink from the southern provinces of Ecuador made from as many as fifteen ingredients: seven flowers, seven roots, and linseed. And though the ingredients are traditional, the technique is very old world.  The Europeans brought with them teas and the tradition of aromatic waters.

Coffee should never be overlooked in Ecuador.  Local specialty coffee producers now compete internationally with the finest coffees in the world.  The "Taza Dorada" competition is held each year to identify the best of the best, judged by internationally trained tasters.

And Ecuador has its own world class mineral water, popularized by the brand name "Guitig" and is taken directly from the springs of Ecuador's snow capped volcano, Cotapaxi.

And one drink normally not associated with the tropics has proven it is just as worthy as those found in the northern and southern regions of the globe: wine.   Though the Spanish started vineyards in the 1500s, only recently has wine become a sensation from Ecuador, with  at least one producer winning some of the continent's most prestigious awards.

Finally, we must recognize one drink which has  become so much more over the centuries: chocolate.  Most of the history of chocolate is the history of a drink.  The raw material – cocoa – orginates from South America and was often mixed with spices and enjoyed in liquid form.  The Europeans were the ones who converted it to a sweet and then to a solid.

Ecuador's native chocolate is classified as a "fine or flavor" bean.  Though these special beans represent only five percent of world chocolate production the  majority of fine or flavor chocolate  beans - 60 to 70 percent of worldwide production - are grown in Ecuador. 

Chocolate is more and more becoming the dessert of choice for many contemporary Ecuadorians, but a few other sweets maintain their place among the populace.

Sweets & Desserts

"Higos con queso," the large, native fig served with cheese and a rich syrup gives testament to the country's mixed roots.   "Helados de paila," ice cream prepared in large copper pots, is an old world treat prepared Ecuadorian style.

Buñuelos are essentially Ecuadorian donuts, made from corn or yucca dough.  And alfajores, aplanchados, quesadillas, and orejas are distinctly of this world and can be found in most bakeries.


Cuisine is born of ritual and fiesta.  From Inti Raymi and La Fiesta del Montubio to Carnaval, Corpus Cristi, and the Pase del Niño, there is a flavor to go with each practice.

Fanesca is the traditional Ecuadorian dish served only during Easter. Rich in Andean ingredients and religiously symbolic its structure suggests it is a blend of native and European traditions.

Guaguas de pan – sweet breads baked in the form of a doll, or baby (guagua in Kichwa) – give testament to ancient beliefs and rituals, where they are still commonly left at gravesides during the national  Memorial holiday to remember the dead and give thanks.  They are consumed with another traditional item, colada morada, a warm drink made with black corn flour and fruits.

Mestizaje continues

What makes Ecuadorian cuisine most dynamic and tasteful is that this great boiling pot of all that is  native and imported continues to brew.

Chefs from around the globe take the richness of Ecuador's gastronomic heritage and combine it with their own.  French and Italian restaurants use Ecuador's native ingredients in their own traditional dishes.  Asian cuisine has brought new flavors to Ecuador.  The Spanish roots and French influences mean that Mediterranean food will always will be in abundance.

The finest steaks, pizza, and sushi are within blocks of each other in Ecuador's major cities, as are the traditions of other Latin American countries. 

It will be hard to imagine how great this place will taste in another 500 years.