Ecuador is diverse in its geography, with coastal lowlands to the west, mountainous highlands running through the centre and Amazonian tropical forest to the east. As such, vastly different agriculture predominates in each region, with more seafood, coconut, lentils and bananas on the coast, more pork, cuy (guinea pig), potatoes and corn in the mountains, and more tropical fruits, yucca, native forest animals and river fish in the Amazon. All of these ingredients have been combined into a cuisine that can be hearty or light with a strong focus on practical dishes made with local ingredients, and influenced by ancient Incan culture as well as Spanish colonisation. Soups are a particular specialty of Ecuador, perhaps instigated by the national custom of large lunches: soup first, followed by a meat dish, then coffee and dessert. This is complemented by a relatively light dinner, sometimes consisting of just tea and bread. Although not pictured, I served most of my dishes this week with a hot sauce called aji, which is on almost every Ecuadorian table, but how much they consume is an individual choice. As an evolutionary/developmental biologist, one of the most attractive aspects of visiting Ecuador is its Galapagos Islands, which are located off the west coast. These islands were famously visited by Charles Darwin and provided crucial examples that allowed him to evidence his theory of evolution, due to the tiny isolated microcosms of wildlife on each island producing slightly different tortoises/finches/iguanas that had adapted to suit their specific environment. However, far from being the removed and objective scientists we might expect, the crew of The Beagle tucked into feasts of all of these exotic (and sometimes rare) species. Indeed, most species of giant tortoise were famous for their delicious and buttery taste, which was apparently far superior to any other meat found at home, and unfortunately likely contributed to most of their endangered statuses today. Their wonderful flavour also resulted in a lengthy delay in their classification by scientists, as intact animals (who could be usefully kept alive for months without food or water) were inevitably devoured on the ship before they could make it back to Europe. One species, Floreana tortoises, was eaten into extinction by 1846. Darwin, however, reserved his title of “best meat” for a small rodent indigenous to Ecuador, as well as surrounding parts of South and Central America, called the agouti. The agouti is not currently endangered, but please don’t read this blog and eat it into extinction… The evidence is therefore mounting that creatures in Ecuador might just be doomed to be naturally tasty? A sad thought, but not the worst tourism campaign I can think of…
I have been affectionately referring to fanesca this week as the star of a fictional show of my creation called “pimp my soup”. The base of the soup, while very delicious, is not particularly spectacular by itself. It is made by simmering a puree of milk/cream and root vegetables such as pumpkin and zucchini, with 12 different types of beans and grains, such as corn, fava beans, lentils, green beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, lima beans, cannellini beans etc. It is spiced with a mix of onions, garlic, cumin, achiote powder and peanuts. This is often combined with flakes of salted cod (bacalao), which is cooked in milk. The “pimping” (slang for “extravagant decoration”) of this soup base, however, is where fanesca truly shines. The toppings can be chopped and changed depending on availability and preference, but often include some of the examples that I show in my photo, including avocado, boiled egg, chorizo, small empanadas, fresh white cheese, chilli and fried plantain bananas. Fanesca is usually eaten at Easter time during holy week in Ecuador. Therein lies the significance of the twelve beans and grains, which are supposed to represent the twelve apostles, while Jesus is represented by the salted cod. The whole family traditionally comes together to make fanesca, which is cooked in large, time-consuming batches, and serves as a bonding activity during the holiday period. Maybe the miraculous process of “resurrecting” the petrified salted cod in boiling milk to recreate soft tender flesh is what put people in mind of the connection with Easter and Jesus? Or maybe it was simply a delicious recipe that conveniently contained no red meat, and could therefore be eaten guilt-free during Holy Week in a predominantly Catholic country? The origins of the dish are equally speculative, with some saying that it stems from the Roman persecution of the Christians, where some would sneak into catacombs carrying small packages of grains and legumes, which were all combined in one big pot to be distributed among the prisoners. Alternatively, it may stem from a pre-Christian South America, when indigenous Incan people celebrated and thanked Pachamama (Mother Earth) on the equinox by preparing a soup from a combination of all of the spoils of the harvest.
Ecuadorian shrimp ceviche
I know I’ve already made a couple of varieties of ceviche for Peruvian week, but, in my defence, the Ecuadorian type is quite different, and ceviche is too delicious to just make once. The major differences in Ecuadorian ceviche are that the fish/seafood is more likely to be cooked, and is commonly served in a lot more liquid than Peruvian varieties. These “soups” often take on a reddish hue in the classic cooked-shrimp ceviche, due to the inclusion of fresh chopped tomatoes, tomato juice, or, as I was surprised to learn, ketchup and yellow mustard! It is also common in some parts of Ecuador to serve “vegetarian ceviche”, which usually has lupini beans, mango, mushroom, or palm hearts as a basis. Ceviche, particularly the seafood varieties, are hugely popular along the coastline, and are just the thing to accompany a hot sunny day by the seaside. To make my shrimp ceviche, I combined peeled cooked shrimp, raw red onions, chopped tomatoes and capsicum, lime juice, orange juice, tomato juice, lots of coriander and a little olive oil, with a topping of crunchy corn nuts for texture. I served it with a few traditional accompaniments, including chifles (banana chips), green salad and popcorn. The last item fleetingly surprised me, until I reasoned that, of course, the indigenous Ecuadorians would have discovered popcorn millennia ago, given that corn is native to the continent. These days, popcorn is often served by itself as a snack in Ecuador, or sprinkled on top of soups, where it crackles as it melts into the broth, forming a starchy thick texture. I’ve never heard of popcorn being served as a traditional side dish anywhere else in the world, but I must say, it’s genius!
Fritada, llapingachos and accompaniments
One of my favourite things about South American cuisine is the tendency for meals to consist of big plates filled with a large variety of tasty and colourful morsels. “Fritada” therefore technically refers to the meat element of this dish, but in my opinion it would be gross negligence not to serve it with innumerable accompaniments. Fritada is made of pieces of pork, generally rib or loin, boiled in a broth of water, orange juice, cumin, garlic, onion, salt and shallot. Eventually, the liquid boils down to a thick paste, and the outside of the pork pieces turn brown and a little bit crispy from being fried in the spices, reduced sugars and fats, a delightful mix which I am equally delighted to learn actually has a name in Ecuador: mapuhuira. The dish stems from small towns in the highlands of Ecuador, where it can either be served alone from food stalls, or as part of larger mixed plates in rustic restaurants frequented by tourists sojourning into the mountains. I served my fritada with llapingachos, which are patties made of mashed cooked potato, combined with achiote powder, cooked chopped onion and seasoning, and stuffed with a fresh white cheese. These are then fried on a skillet until golden-brown on the outside. They are often served with a peanut sauce (salsa de mani), although I omitted it from my preparation, but it sounds delicious! Llapingachos also hails from the highlands, and is very common to find alongside fritada. I also included fried plantain bananas, fried cassava, stewed white hominy corn, curtido (tomato, red onion and coriander salad), avocado and steamed corn. Now that’s what I call a meal!
Encocado de pescado y camerón
“Encocado” literally means “with coconut” or, pleasingly, “coconutted”, while “pescado y camerón” means “fish and prawns”. This dish therefore consists of seafood seasoned with lime juice, orange juice, garlic, cumin, achiote powder and coriander seed powder. This mix is then added to fried onions, tomatoes and capsicums, and finally combined with coconut milk and simmered until cooked. I served mine with the traditional side of fluffy white rice, as well as plenty of fresh coriander leaves mixed through. I was delighted by the lightness of the dish – other coconut seafood preparations I’ve had have been a little heavier on the coconut, which can easily mask the subtle taste of the fish. This dish, however, had a light and perfectly aromatic balance that perfectly complemented the seafood. Encocado came from the original communities of African slaves and their descendants, who were brought to Ecuador to work on the plantations covering the tropical lowlands. It’s now commonly served on the northern coast of Ecuador, where the seafood can be plucked from the ocean, and the coconuts picked from the trees to create an unbelievably fresh taste sensation. Lacking my own personal coconut tree, I resorted to canned milk, but am resolved to try the real deal someday – perhaps I’ll just have to visit Ecuador myself?