Food for Thought

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.

photo of a long row of bins with brightly colored fruits and vegetables in an open market

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. 

photo of piles of shrimp and fish on trays

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.

photo of cuts of meat on a counter, including a pig's head

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!

photo of a bowl of noodle soup, a plate with rice, corn, and meat, and glass of juice

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. 

photo of an entire roasted pig

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!

photo of a white dish containing a mixture of potatoes, corn, and scallions

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.

photo of seared filet of trout with egg-and-potato side dish

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.

photo of a smiling couple selling baked goods and frozen treats

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! 

20 thoughts on “Food for Thought

  1. Lane Klein says:

    Thank you for the gift of reading your magnificent posts. This one brings the locals and their foods nearly to our table through your willingness to leave your American habits behind and embrace the world around you. 💕

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jamie McGibbon says:

    Great post! It’s interesting to read of your culinary experiences in and around Cuenca! Though, for someone who is as picky an eater as myself, I wonder how well I’d fare if I were in your shoes! That said, I’d probably be down to try some of the dishes/treats that you mentioned!

    Keep up the great work on the blogs – it’s always nice to see a new post in my email inbox!

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    1. Rachel says:

      I think you would do just fine here. There are loads of places selling your kind of food Jamie. And maybe you would even venture out a bit and try some of the more unusual offerings.

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  3. April+Holland says:

    What a mouthwatering post! The produce looks delectable! What fun to sample all the new flavors! Even the foods you didn’t like provide great stories! We love to travel through food, and it’s sheer joy coming along with you on your adventures!

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    1. Rachel says:

      Thanks April. It would be really fun to take a culinary journey here with you. I know you have a great sense of adventure when it comes to eating and trying new things. I loved traveling in Italy with you and Denny so many years ago.

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  4. Vivek Bajaj says:

    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.
    Same situation in many restaurants in France and Spain. Maddening.

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    1. Rachel says:

      We are so glad to have our own kitchen so we can take advantage of the beautiful produce here. Tomorrow we are going our for an authentic Ecuadorian breakfast with Patricia. I am picturing lots of starch and some eggs (and then a nap).

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    1. Rachel says:

      Yes that is the one. How did you eat it in NZ? Here it seems to be used only as a salsa. It is prepared raw in a blender with raw onions and then the solids (skin mostly) are removed with a sieve. It is refreshing though I would throw in a couple hot peppers. Seems like the folks here are not huge fans of spicy food.

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  5. Eleanor Jaffeejaffe80@aol.com says:

    Rachel. – Thanks for the culinary tour, complete with photographs. The stalls of fresh fruit are reminiscent of our days in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. But you and Al are far more adventuresome eaters than we were. More power to you….I love the lens, food, through which you are exploring and meeting locals……Here’s an anecdote from our experience in Ecuador years ago. We met with a local, hospitable physician who invited us to his home for dinner. His work included bringing more vitamin rich foods to local Indians who lived “upriver”. The families were supplied with nutritious foods and vitamin supplements, but the wives and mothers – instead of feeding their children – used the supplements to feed their husbands…..After all, the husbands were the wage earners! The physician in charge of the program was frustrated — and the children remained malnourished.
    Enjoy, learn, write more essays! Love, Eleanor

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    1. Rachel says:

      Thank you for your insightful and informative response to my post Eleanor. I love the image of the mothers prioritizing their husbands/providers. It makes sense in the larger scheme of the family unit which is of tantamount importance here in Ecuador. As travelers and Ex-pats we must always be mindful that our lens isn’t necessarily the “right” one. It is a great lesson in humility and open-mindedness to be a guest in someone else’s country.

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  6. Al says:

    Thanks Emma! Never thought to ask for aji when ordering food at a restaurant. We did buy some piña (pineapple) and aji jam, and it’s delicious. Though still not as spicy as we’d prefer…

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  7. Rosian Zerner says:

    What ammagnificient post. It gives such an overview of a culinary adventure through. Interesting that the meat in your favorite store is on one level while dairy is on another. Kosher? Anyway, I would love to received your travelogues. Just signed up. This one just popped up on my FB….. So enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

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    1. Rachel says:

      HI Rosian, I don’t think the issue is one of keeping kosher. This country and city are predominately Christian. I have been told there is a very tiny population of Muslims living on one short street in the city center. I found this on Wikipedia for what it is worth:
      The first Jews arrived in Ecuador in the 16th and 17th centuries. Most of them are Sephardic Anusim (Crypto-Jews) and many still speak Judaeo-Spanish (Ladino) language. Today the Jewish Community of Ecuador has its seat in Quito and has approximately 200 members. Nevertheless, this number is declining because young people leave the country for the United States or Israel. There are very small communities in Cuenca. The “Comunidad de Culto Israelita” reunites the Jews of Guayaquil. This community works independently from the “Jewish Community of Ecuador” and is composed of only 30 people.
      Welcome to our blog. I hope you enjoy it.

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