One of our favorite aspects of foreign travel is digging into the local cuisine of our destination. You can’t really understand a place or its culture if you don’t understand its food. We’d been to the Andes before (visiting neighboring Peru in 2010), so we thought we knew what we’d find in the food of Ecuador. We were wrong. Ecuadorian cuisine is similar to its neighbor but also unique – integrating local ingredients, while reflecting cultural differences. Here are our 10 favorite Ecuadorian food dishes from our two-week itinerary!
Bolon de Verde: The Bolon de Verde or “The Ball” is one of the national dishes in Ecuador. This baseball or grapefruit sized ball is absolutely delicious. Green plantains are mashed and made into ball around a filling of meat (usually pork) or sometimes cheese. The whole ball of goodness is then pan fried and served hot. Traditionally it’s served for breakfast or a late brunch. The bolon is very filling and helps workers get through their day. And it tastes amazing!
Cuy: Travelers to the Andes Mountains have all heard tales of local residents eating cuy (or as we know it – guinea pig). Cuy is an indigenous food source and common to the diet in Ecuador, dating back to the times before domestic animals (namely cattle) were introduced by the Spanish. We first encountered cuy during our time in Cusco, Peru, several years ago. We weren’t particularly impressed at the time, but we thought it might have had something to do with the establishment where we ate. So, on this trip to Ecuador, we sought out the freshest cuy possible at a local roadside food stall in the area they call Paradero la Quinchenita. Cuy has a naturally greasy, dark meat. Once roasted over an open fire, the skin gets crispy and delicious. I’ll admit to enjoying this second try of cuy. So, if you’re traveling to Ecuador, this is one food you have to sample!
Empanada de Viento: The Empanadas de Viento (roughly translated as air or wind empanadas) are very large pastries filled mostly with air and a tiny little bit of gooey fried cheese. These empanadas can fill the entire plate! These delicious bites are served all day long and typically enjoyed with a sprinkling of sugar or dipped into aji hot sauce – or both!
Bizcochos de Cayambe: In the town of Cayambe, we discovered bizcochos. Throughout the entire town of Cayambe (between Otavalo and Quito), the road is lined on both sides with cafes and shops all proudly proclaiming they serve bizcochos. It’s an oddity to see a business not selling them. And with good reason: these light, flaky biscuits are a tradition dating back to the Spanish colonization of the town. The dough is flattened and divided into sticks, which are served a half-dozen at a time in brown paper bags. There is a ritual to eating bizcochos. First, you try a bite of the buttery biscuit all on its own and ensure it is perfectly cooked. Then you take a bite of the biscuit along with string cheese (called queso de hoja) and caramel dulce de leche dipping sauce. I have to say, I’m not a huge fan of dulce de leche and I was skeptical how the cheese, sauce, and bizcochos biscuit would taste together, but it’s quite good. You’d never expect the flavors to blend, but the sweet and savory really work together. There’s a reason bizcochos are one of the more popular foods in Ecuador!
Humita: The humita is one of the most authentic Ecuadorian foods available. Humitas are essentially tamales – steamed masa and corn in a banana leaf. In Ecuador, humitas are either salty or sweet (we only encountered the salty variety on our trip) and can also contain onions, cheese or eggs. The indigenous Native Americans were making humitas long before the Spanish arrived in the Andes, making this one of the most authentic foods in the region. Humitas are also incredibly cheap – just pennies to buy from the local lady with a push cart!
Shrimp Ceviche: When it comes to food wars, the hotly contested battle of who invented ceviche is one of great rivalries. While most historians have sided with Peru, Ecuador now stakes its claim that it has the better ceviche. While this is certainly a value judgement, we’re going to side with Ecuador here. The main difference between ceviche in Peru versus ceviche in Ecuador is that Ecuadorian ceviche is served in the citrus marinating juices and not drained, resulting in a kind of soupy broth. The fish and seafood retain more of their flavor this way. Ecuadorian ceviche is usually garnished with tostado (a corn nut) and plantain chips. Shrimp is probably the most popular kind of ceviche in Ecuador, and for good reason since the country is one of the leading producers of farm-raised shrimp. Also, for those who are worried about the quality of their seafood (like me), Ecuadorian shrimp rank very well in independent international quality and sustainability studies.
Fritada de Chancho: The fritada de chancho (usually just shorted to fritada) is one of the most common and popular foods in Ecuador. We encountered this dish everywhere from the Avenue of the Volcanoes to the Galapagos. The fritada is a piece of pork (often pork shoulder) which is boiled in water until the water evaporates, then fried, and finally finished in a somewhat spicy red sauce. The fritada is then served with sides of hominy or fava beans or corn or potatoes – or all of the above. This is a very popular dish on the weekends and a brunch staple for most Ecuadorians.
Ecuadorian Aji Hot Sauce: There is only one certainty when it comes to Ecuadorian food. Wherever you are, whatever you are eating, and whoever is at your table with you: there will be aji somewhere on that table. It might be fresh in a bowl with a spoon or in a bottle from the store, but it will be there. What is aji? It is the ubiquitous hot sauce of Ecuador. It’s a cross between salsa and a condiment like ketchup. The base of aji is the fruit of the tree tomato (tomate de arbol in Spanish). I’d never heard of a tree tomato before, but it has a mild tomato-like flavor. Aji is then spiced with a small amount of Aji pepper. Most aji sauce in Ecuador is medium spicy at best (mostly just flavorful, but not really hot), although you will encounter a few varieties of aji that will knock your shorts off!
Chirimoya Fruit: The sweet, fleshy cherimoya fruit is a staple of Ecuadorian cuisine. The greenish fruit reminds me of an artichoke from the outside, but inside, the fragrant white pulp is a delicious treat, which is also high in antioxidants. Chirimoya also makes a great juice, which we had with breakfast several times. Driving between Otavalo and Quito, we discovered numerous pop-up stands by the side of the road selling Chirimoya to passing cars.
Canelazo: Canelazo is a hot, spiced, alcoholic beverage served in the Ecuadorian highlands. Produced from sugar cane alcohol, the brew is spiced, usually with cinnamon or cloves, and served warm. It is traditionally associated with the holidays/Christmas time, but Ecuadorians have begun drinking it year round – especially as an aperitif.
And a beverage bonus:
Club: We always enjoy trying the local brew on our trips and discovered the local beer in Ecuador: Club (pronounced like “kloob”). It’s a lager-style beer from Guayaquil and very refreshing on a hot day!
And a few more photos: