One of the most obvious and accessible ways to get a sense of a place and its culture is through food. Al and I have had memorable travel experiences around the world eating, drinking, meeting locals, and enjoying the food and beverages they produce from the resources available to them. Ecuador is no different: We are loving learning about the culture, people, and daily life through the ingredients we find, the prepared foods we buy, and, most importantly, the people we meet along the way.
Near our Spanish language immersion school is one of the city’s fresh markets. These markets are found in each of the districts of the city and generally consist of a large, roofed, multi-story building with animal products on one level, produce and dairy on another, and prepared foods on a third. The markets are a full-on sensory overload experience, with competing smells, brilliant colors, people calling out to you to taste and buy their goods, and even live, amplified music, mostly from people with physical disabilities who make their living entertaining shoppers and diners. Al and I have narrowed in on our favorite fruit and vegetable vendor. I like her because her stall is set off a bit from the center of the chaos. She seems to have consistently good produce and she is reasonably patient with our bumbling attempts at communication. We typically walk away with our backpacks bulging and our wallets only $5-6 lighter. We have tried all manner of produce new to us, such as granadilla (a member of the passion fruit family with a lucious, sweet tasting, but gelatinous filling that is unappetizing to look at, to say the least), cherimoya (which has the texture of an overripe pear but tastes like a slice of heaven), tomate de árbol (used in a sweet salsa that is served with everything), and more.
On the lower level we buy the freshest, most tender and flavorful river trout, which is sourced locally in the mountain rivers around Cuenca. It sells for $3.00 per pound and usually sells out by early afternoon.
And what meat market would be complete without the weirder cuts and parts of the animals? Here a common item is a whole pig’s head, which each pork vendor puts on display front and center on her counter. At the beef counters there are stacks of cow shins with hooves attached, which, I have to admit, I will likely never buy. But it does seem less wasteful than the U.S., because people really do use the whole animal here!
From what we can tell so far, the main staple of the Cuencan diet is all manner of starch. When the school kids get dismissed for the day they beat a path to the salchipapas vendors for a favorite after school snack—basically a bowl of hot dogs and french fries with mayonnaise, sold everywhere as “fast food”. The typical mid-day meal is simply called almuerzo, which means lunch in Latin American Spanish. Almuerzos can be purchased anywhere and everywhere (since the pandemic started, many women have started selling almuerzos from their front patios to make ends meet—in fact there are so many it’s hard to see how they can all make a living). For between $1 and $3; you get a bowl of soup, a glass of juice, and a big plate with a mix of starches such as potatoes, rice, and a white corn similar to hominy. Some sort of animal protein is laid on top (usually pork or chicken) and of course a tomate de árbol salsa on the side.
Another variation on the almuerzo is a plate of roast pork sliced directly off the whole animal (choose your part) and sold with the requisite pile of starch. The streets are lined with pork roasting stalls, where the pig is proudly on display. Many of these vendors also sell cuy, a much loved Andean food that has gained notoriety with tourists because most of us can’t imagine eating a guinea pig!
Despite seeing mountains of the most beautiful green, yellow, orange, and red vegetables in the markets—and constantly seeing trees ripe with avocados (including in our backyard!), figs, and various fruits—you never find these local, fresh delectables on your almuerzo plate. Go figure. Undoubtedly, the role of the almuerzo here is to provide plenty of calories at a low price. They must be better nutrition than, say, McDonald’s or Taco Bell, but we find them bland, salty,and starchy. Of course, the roast pork is savory, juicy, and tender, but we find ourselves really craving roasted vegetables to go with it!
Recently, we had the pleasure of visiting the expansive national park right outside of the city border, called El Cajas, with the Cuencan sister-in-law of one of our good friends from Newton. Being native to Cuenca, she knew the best place to dine (San Juan Cajas) in Cajas and all the most delicious things to order from the menu. There we had our best and most interesting meal so far. She ordered appetizers for the table, including moto sucio, a blend of potatoes, corn, and pork that was rich and savory.
Each of us ordered the specialty—locally caught trout—but prepared three different ways. All of them highlighted the sweet, tender flavor of the fish. The side dishes were starchy, of course, but these were full of flavor. One in particular was a mouth-watering mix of potatoes and eggs called mote pillo.
After overeating at lunch, we meandered to an elegant resort, which we learned began as a secluded 2-3 room inn tucked away in the mountains by a river, and is now a popular destination that attracts large crowds on the weekend. It has, among other things, a bakery on site, where we purchased chocolate truffles filled with maracuya fruit fondant. They were the perfect blend of sweet and sour and showed us that high-end chocolates are as much a part of the cuisine here as salchipapas—maybe not as pervasive, but still able to draw a crowd.
But for me, the most meaningful food experiences are when I get to meet the people behind the products. I love finding the true artisans who take care and pride in their products and use the best ingredients available. Near to our school is the Museo del Cacao, where one can buy hand-crafted, uniquely flavored chocolates in the little shop. The shopkeepers will happily let you sample their goods and we always come away with a small bag of edible treasures. Al learned that his Spanish teacher has a growing business with his fiancé in which they make Mexican-style paletas (simply called helados here; while “popsicles” may be the closest word in the States, it doesn’t do them justice) and American-style cookies. For their fruit-flavored paletas they use only whole fruit, which they process by hand to turn into amazing, flavor-packed, frozen treats—and they also make flavors like dulce de leche and black forest (chocolate and cherry). If you are ever in Cuenca, you must pay Paolo and his future wife, Paola, a visit at their shop.
This past weekend Al and I went to an upscale hand-crafts festival, where artisans of all ilks were promoting and selling their goods. Products ranged from whisky to tea infusions, hand-knit llama wool scarves to hand-tooled wood cutting boards (oh, how we wanted one of those!), from cured meats to doughnuts. We happened upon a goat’s milk products display and got into a conversation with the mother and daughter farmers. We walked away with a block of the most amazing goat’s milk cheese and an invitation to stay at their farm and participate in the activities there. The pair were so enthusiastic about their goats, and we shared stories and photos of the goat farm near us in Maine! We could taste the love in their cheeses and yogurt.
Cuenca has a “gringo” community of around 5000, perhaps the largest in Ecuador. Along with North American residents comes food familiar to them. One salty gringo we met, wearing a camo hat and leather biker vest, was eagerly tucking into a burger at the craft fair—we learned he is married to a Cuencan but hates the food here. We also had lunch last week with our Airbnb hosts from the States, who have been ex-pats here for ten years. They regularly enjoy a bread bowl filled with New England clam chowder at a local Italian restaurant. It was delicious, and probably in time we too would crave familiar foods, but for now, we are sticking mostly with local cuisine. Certainly we all have our comfort foods! We have broken down and gotten European-style ice cream and U.S.-style craft beer rather than stick with the local pilsners. Some things are just worth having if you can get them, and to us, those are.
In our effort to experience the culture through the cuisine, we are constantly reminded to keep an open mind. Sometimes local food looks, smells and tastes unfamiliar, but turns out to be delicious—case in point, the goopy, brain-like appearance but heavenly flavor of the granadilla.
And not all experiences will be gourmet or even pleasant. In our first week, we were excited to sample one of the almuerzo places and met a lovely woman who was anxious to use the English she had learned on a former job. She was so proud of her streetside kitchen and invited us to come back Saturday to try her encebollado (a fish and onion soup that we later learned is prized as a hangover cure). We loved meeting her, but the plate of starch with some indeterminate brown meat? Not so much. And when Al later did try encebollado, well, let’s just say he was not in need of a hangover cure and maybe that’s why he missed its real value.
Another early restaurant meal was ceviche with concha, which we took to be conch. We love ceviche, but learned after ordering that here, concha are actually large, dark clams with a mushy consistency and overly salty taste. Al took one for the team and managed to make them disappear, but we probably won’t make that mistake again!
Good or bad, we wouldn’t trade any of these experiences. In the end, immersing ourselves completely in a place means saying yes to all that is new and different to us. And, even more importantly, saying yes means understanding—and being respectful of—the role food plays in the culture. It’s fine to judge food, but not the people who make and eat it!