Ten years ago this fall, I – freshly graduated from high school – flew to Quito, Ecuador, to teach English at an orphanage. Ok, well, really, I was getting out of my hometown, making my mark, immersing myself in language and culture, learning something new about a corner of the world far, far away from my tiny Eastern Oregonian hometown. Teaching English at an orphanage was just my means to do this.
This year I’ll be looking back: posting emails from a decade ago, and reflecting on my experiences from a much older, wiser perspective (riiight).
One of the lasting impressions I have of Ecuador is the food – it was quite good, and there was such a lot of it! I didn’t take photos of much of it while I was there (this was pre-Facebook/Instagram me, I wasn’t properly trained yet), so I am working on some watercolor sketches of different foods to fill the void! For many years I had no idea how to recreate the recipes, and had trouble even remembering some of the names, but a couple of years ago I found a fantastic blog called Laylita’s Recipes, where she writes detailed recipes, accompanied by mouthwatering photos, of all things Ecuadorian. I’ve used her Colada Morada and Guaguas de Pan recipe several times! In case you’d like to try some of these out, I’ve linked to her recipes – she’s pretty good about suggesting alternatives for some of the ingredients that aren’t usually available in the U.S.
My typical day in Quito would start with coffee, butter on fresh bread my host mother had picked up on her run that morning, fruit juice, and whatever else she felt like making (she herself was not big on cooking, and the maid/her cousin didn’t show up until later) which was sometimes pancakes. We’d come home for lunch, which would be soup – usually fish- or chicken-based. I think people in the coastal towns typically eat more fish than Quitenos do, but we had it on occasion. My host family, even though they were considered “rich” by Ecuadorian standards, had a chicken coop out back, and my host mother stretched and chopped their necks herself. Then she or her cousin would pluck all the feathers out. After soup would come a solid meal: rice, beans, more bread, and some sort of meat – again, usually chicken or fish, with some beef. This was also the standard meal for dinner. I don’t really remember specific kinds of meats or soups, though I do vividly remember a chicken soup that had a chicken foot, claw and all, sticking out of the top of the pot. The foot was the special part of the meal, and was offered to we guests before family. I don’t remember who got it, but it sure was NOT me.
Fish was cooked whole, and the eyes considered delicacies. The first time we had fish, the eye creeped me out, and after I had eaten the rest of the fish, it was still there, watching me. You know who else was watching me? My seven-year-old host sister. After a few minutes of me staring at the fish eye, and it staring right back, she asked if she could have it. I agreed, and she excitedly dug that sucker out with her spoon and chomped it down. I am in a constant state of almost-vegetarianism.
On a happier note, my host family had a fig tree in their back yard, which ripened just as I arrived, so one of the first unusual dishes I experienced in Ecuador was Dulce de Higos: a decadent softened fig in syrup. This dish was quite a process to make (I’ve made it a few times by myself since I came back). After the figs
are plucked from your backyard purchased from the store, you make a deep crosscut into the stem side of each fig. Soak the lot of them in a pot of cool water for a whole day, then boil them in a ton of sugar and spices until the figs are completely saturated. Then serve them with a thick slice of queso fresco.
Dulce de Higos (figs in syrup) recipe here.
One of my favorite foods in Ecuador (besides coffee and fresh bread) was the maracuyas. There are a couple different kinds, but the ones I loved were large golden orbs — you cut them open to reveal a fleshy midsection, and protected inside, a pulpy mass. Dozens of pitch-black seeds, each encased in an ochre blob of goo. I realize I am probably not selling you guys on the maracuyas with this description, but they are heaven, I promise. They’ve got a tangy bite and a rich, exotic flavor. The “passionfruit” juice they sell here does NOT do the fruit justice. And the seeds are lovely and crunchy (yes, you eat them, too!) Maracuyas were one food that I hadn’t eaten since I was in Ecuador, until I discovered, just a few weeks ago that Ellenos Greek Yogurt in Seattle has a lovely passionfruit-laden yogurt that is perfection. Maracuyas are also great for juice – just blend the pulp and seeds until liquefied, and then strain the seed dust out. My host brother Jonathan and I made about 20 lbs of juice for the kids at REMAR one time – it was so delicious. They are not frequent in the U.S. – part of this is that they are seasonal, unlike oranges or mango, now. They are in season through the fall, into December. But you can order them through Amazon (of course, right?)
Speaking of juice, it was a big deal in Ecuador. At least in my host family’s house. Every day there was a different kind of freshly made juice at breakfast — maracuya, guava, papaya, mango…
On the drinks theme, one drink I hadn’t remembered until I was going through Laylita’s website was hot chocolate — with cheese. It’s not that much different from (real) hot chocolate here in the states, but in Ecuador they serve it with a lovely lump of white cheese at the bottom. It sounds gross, I grant you, but it’s so good. Just a spot of gooey saltiness to cut through the sweet chocolate.
Another unique Ecuadorian recipe was Colada Morada — a traditional drink made for the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Difuntos). To make it, you simmer blackberries, naranjillas (oranges), blueberries, strawberries, and whole spices (like cinnamon and anise), blocks of cane sugar, and a tiny bit of blue corn flour into an almost soup-like potion. It is strained and served piping hot and alongside Guaguas de Pan.
Guagua (pronounced WAH-wah) is a word in the indigenous language of Ecuador – Quechua (KEH-choowah) – and it means “little girl.” So these are “bread babies.” They are mildly sweet breads, shaped like swaddled babies and decorated with thin frosting. On Dia de los Difuntos in Quito, Colada Morada and Guaguas de Pan were being served all over the city — mostly at carts in the graveyards, where people were gathered to celebrate dead loved ones. While it does not get quite “cold” in Ecuador — even Quito, at 10,000ft — the hot drink and bread is nice in the cool November air.
Platanos refers to bananas — both sweet and plantain in nature. The sweet kind are frequently used as desserts — fried or flambéed with some sort of alcohol, usually — and the plantains are a major staple in savory lunches and dinners. They are made into chips, cut up into soups, and fried every which way. My favorite were the patacones – sliced up, fried, smooshed flat, and fried again, with a dash of salt. Also good were Bolon de Verde, which were fried green plantain balls, usually filled with cheese!
On the subject of fried carbs, let me tell you about yucca root, a most delicious, earthy starch. I’d only really heard of yucca being used for weaving fibers, etc, and not for eating, but when cut into strips or chips and fried, it turns into a dirt-flavored french fry. I mean this in the best sense – those of you who like the dirt-flavored Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans will know what I’m talking about. It has a richness and depth to the flavor that potatoes just can’t quite capture. Try it for yourself, here’s a recipe. Or you can check the hot bar at Whole Foods, they have yucca fries every once in a great while.
I had the hardest time tracking down what is called the “ice cream bean,” aka Monkey Tamarind. I think in Ecuador thy also call it pacay (pah-KAI). I only had these once, in Mindo. They were so good, and they were everywhere. Someone told me they were called “guanabana,” which they aren’t, actually. Which probably hindered my google searching from the get-go. Guanabana is something entirely different, of course, and since it and the weird description were all I had to go on, I didn’t find this bean until this year. Ice cream beans grow in large, green bean pods on trees near the Amazon (funnily enough, you can also order them through Amazon). The kids playing in the street in Mindo were just picking them up off the road where they had fallen, and off the trees, easy as you please. Inside each green pod was a set of furry white beans. Yes, furry. The texture was, I’m going to say: moist cotton candy? Not sticky, but somehow wet AND fluffy at the same time. This was – believe it or not – the edible part. After you suck the white fleshy part off, you’re left with a large, shiny black bean. I don’t remember them tasting of vanilla, but apparently they taste so much like it to other folks that they were named for it (ice cream!)
I am really tempted to buy an ice cream bean tree, now. But given my experience with house plants, it’s probably not a good idea to spend 70 bucks on one…
That’s all the food I can remember for now. Hope you guys enjoy the recipes!