I get this question one too many times, and to be honest I find it hard to explain. I know WHAT it is, because I was born in Ecuador and I ate this food. I’ve written about some key ingredients in Ecuadorian cooking, but to come up with a concise explanation as far as a cooking technique, or a particular flavor, is not easy nor straight forward. For instance, if we play word association, we can say: jalapeños=Mexican. Or bouillabaise=French. Or moules=Belgium. Or lemon grass=Thai. However, playing the word association game with Ecuadorian results in a question mark.
The reality is that our cuisine, or cocina Criolla, or comida Típica, is heavily influenced by the European and Spanish culture in particular, thanks to the Conquistadores who landed in our geographies in the 1500s. Prior to that, and due to archaeological finds, we know that our ancestors lived off the earth and ate what they harvested. For instance, the coast of what is now the province of Guayas, mainly the Santa Elena peninsula, was home to the Valdivia indigenous culture which dates back to 3500 B.C., give or take. From them we know they consumed maize, certain types of squashes and beans as well as papayas, pineapples, and chirimoyas. These folks were also hunters and fishermen. Makes sense, no? And this is only the coastal region of Ecuador.
The variety of climates, altitudes and environmental characteristics of our country allows for the growth of all sorts of different and unique fruits and vegetables as well as an amazing array of wildlife and sea life. Furthermore, the location of Ecuador – smack in the middle of the globe, La Mitad del Mundo, means that the Andean region in particular experiences Spring Eternal. These are perfect conditions for cultivation and harvest of many different crops, such as a wide variety of potatoes: ubilla, chola, chaucha, melloco, to name a few. Ecuador knew farm to table from its existence.
This wealth of fresh fruits and vegetables certainly captivated the Spanish Conquistadores, and we know how the story ended. It was our potatoes that saved Europe from famine, our maize was the golden ticket, and our unique tropical fruits caused many jaws to drop. To be fair, it was tits for tats, as the Spanish gave us wheat, barley and sources of meat protein. Where, oh where, would we be without chorizo?
So what is Ecuadorian Cuisine? Ecuadorian cuisine is simple and from the earth; it is not gourmet by any means. Ecuador, as it is the case with many third world countries, has a large gap that separates the haves from the have-nots, and our food is a function of the large group that is the have-nots, making the most of what is available. From stews to fritters, and cow brains to cuyes (AKA guinea pigs); from shrimp and plantains along to coast, to quinoa and potatoes in the Andes highlands; from yuca in the Amazon to conchas in the Galápagos, our comida Criolla has something for everyone. Ecuadorian cuisine is not internationally famous, but it has a lot of soul.
Have you eaten Ecuadorian food? How would you describe it?