Altitude and geography play a prominent role in Ecuadorian cooking, with cooks in the Andean highlands preparing quite different dishes from their counterparts along the coast.
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Big cities like Quito and Guayaquil benefit from food-savvy immigrants arriving from other parts, but to encounter the magic of real-deal regional cooking, you will have to hit the road.
Once highly revered in these parts, maíz (corn) has been a staple of the Andean diet for more than a thousand years. You will find it in many shapes and flavours: humitas are lightly sweetened corn dumplings, steamed and served in the corn husks; quimbolitos are even sweeter, more cakelike corn dumplings. Tostada (toasted corn) makes a fine snack – it goes nicely with a cold cerveza (beer) on a warm day – and is sometimes served as an appetizer in casual restaurants. On the streets, you can also find vendors selling tortillas de maiz (thin corn pancakes) and choclo (grilled corn).
With more than 4,000 varieties in existence, the Andes are the birthplace of the potato, and are accorded a respect they rarely receive elsewhere. Dishes like llapingachos (fried potato and cheese pancakes) and locro de papa (a creamy, sweet potato soup with avocado and cheese) showcase the versatile tuber, while potatoes also appear as accompaniments to other well-known dishes like ceviche.
Not to be missed when travelling in the highlands is hornado – whole roasted pig. In markets, vendors will slice tender morsels of meat right off the golden-brown carcass. Pork is also popularly served as fritada (fried), as in the highland town Latacunga, which is famous for its chugchucara, a classic dish of fried chunks of pork, hominy, potatoes and toasted corn served with chicharrón (fried pieces of pork skin) for good measure. It is magnificent, though probably not ideal for those with high cholesterol.
Cuy, or roasted guinea pig, remains another popular highland meal, and is sometimes cooked on a spit and served whole – paws, teeth and all. The southern highland towns of Cuenca and Loja are among the best places to sample it.
No matter the time of year, it gets chilly in the highlands – particularly when the afternoon mists envelope the mountains. A Quito favourite is canelazo, hot water with rum, cinnamon (aka canela), a bit of sugar and lemon or lime. It is a great early-evening pick-me-up.
Chicha, a fermented corn or yucca drink, is a popular indigenous beverage found in both the highlands and in the Amazonian Oriente. It was traditionally made by women who masticated the yucca and spit it into pots, where it was then left to ferment with the help of enzymes from the saliva. Today, it is rarely made this way, though if you do happen to find yourself in an indigenous village during a festival, you may have the chance to try the authentic version.
With towering snow-covered peaks and Amazonian rainforest, most visitors tend to overlook Ecuador’s coastline. This however is a serious mistake – some of Ecuador’s best dishes come from the north coast. The Afro-Ecuadorian province of Esmeraldas serves delicious seafood with African accents. For a truly sublime experience, try encocado, fish or shrimp cooked in a richly spiced coconut sauce. Better known is ceviche, a dish of uncooked seafood marinated in lemon juice and seasoned with thinly sliced onion, chili, coriander and other herbs. Most Ecuadorians agree that Manabí province, produces the nation’s best ceviche.
Regis St. Louis is the author of the Lonely Planet guide to Ecuador.
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