I used to get this question all the time: “Is Ecuadorean food like Mexican food?” No, it’s not – that is the simple answer. While Latin American cuisine share common ingredients, their uses vary and each country has their own version of a dish. Several Mexican food dishes are spicy from within; Ecuadorean food is not. Ecuadorean food uses several spices which make our dishes very flavorful, but we add heat to them by pouring some ají (ah-HEE) over them. More on ají later.
Several of our dishes use visceral meats -think cow heart, cow tongue, tripe, etc., which are also standard in other Latin American cuisines – and even in Asian cuisine, but again, each country has their own way to make them – their own sazón!
So sazón (sah-ZON) is the key – the spices and herbs used in Ecuadorean dishes. I use these ingredients all the time, regardless of what meal I make:
- Cumin – I use it in powder form, and it adds a delicious smokey flavor. I use mostly to season meats – everything from chicken to beef. Hmmm, now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve used it with fish or shellfish – ah, something else to experiment with!
- Salt and black pepper – this is a no-brainer.
- Achiote – a natural food coloring, also known as annato. These seeds are cooked in vegetable oil in very low heat; the purpose is to infuse the oil with red coloring. Use this oil to sautee anything and everything under the sun; it has no flavor, it just makes the food cheery! Goya makes annato paste, but it contains lard, so I tend to steer away from it.
- Cilantro and Parsley – these herbs are thrown in everything and are not just for garnish. Seldom have I eaten a traditional Ecuadorean dish that doesn’t incorporate one or the other.
- Aliño – say it with me: ah-LEE-gno. This is a paste which is used to season beef, turkey, pork or chicken, or any dish that calls for it. You make it by processing several cloves of garlic, salt, pepper and cumin. Store it in a covered jar and refrigerate. It lasts about a week; just be prepared for the smell when you open the jar.
- Ají – ají (ah-HEE) is a small red hot pepper, similar to a thai chili. Ají, however, is the common term for the spicy sauce made from these peppers, which is used to add some heat to meals. Cook the peppers in some water until tender; drain. Process the pepper in a food processor or blender with some of the water you boiled the peppers in. Add salt, lemon juice, a small white onion finely chopped, cilantro and parsley chopped. Store in a glass jar covered in the fridge. It lasts for about 1 weeks, and it gets spicier as the days go by.
Just to be clear, these are not the only herbs and spices used, but are the most common. Feel free to comment on other ingredients you use in your daily meals. We are in this culinary journey together!