It has now been almost four years since I entered grad school… Okay. Wow. That just made me contemplate everything. Being a grad student definitely has its ups and downs. One aspect that I have always been thankful for is getting to know different cultures. Sometimes, there is the simple, but heated arguments on the pronunciation of particular words; I’m just saying, it is cray-on, not cran, as my fiance likes to believe. On the other hand, there are more complex situations like picking up bits of other languages. However, my absolute favorite part is to learn about food in other cultures. I heavily believe that people can connect to different cultures based on the local meals and food. As my co-workers can attest to, I love to ask the question, “If I had to have one dish from X culture, what should I get?” From this experience, I have a long list of places to go and food to try when I get there. Around three weeks ago, I was able to cross off one place from my list: Ecuador.
A mountainside picture of Cumbaya, a city near Quito, surrounded by lush, green mountains.
This past semester, I taught a class called “Food Systems: Chocolate,” where the focus was based on understanding the entirety of chocolate from “bean-to-bar.” A component of that class was a study abroad to the origin of chocolate/cacao: Ecuador. Our trip was centered around the capital city of Quito, a historic and gorgeous city bustling with vibrant life and luscious, green hills and mountains. Even just Ecuador, in general, is filled with eye-striking greenery, gigantic mountains, and beautiful weather. While some areas of Ecuador, the Amazon and the coast, do get humid and hot, Quito maintains a cool 68 degrees Fahrenheit in the morning and night peaking towards 80 degrees Fahrenheit at midday. As you are 9000 feet above sea level and extremely close to the sun, sunscreen and sunglasses are a must-have. However, nothing is as radiant as the food.
When I asked our university hosts about the traditions of Ecuadorian food, they listed a few things. First, Ecuadorian cuisine is in love with the natural side of food. Centroid to breakfast are fresh, baked pieces of bread with fruit jams from locally-found fruits; scrambled eggs; plantains in all sorts of forms (smashed, grilled, pan-fried, or toasted); natural yogurt; and, the best part, fruit and fruit juices. Typically, those fruits and fruit juices can be found at any meal in Ecuador, but it is most prevalent at breakfast. Ecuadorian breakfasts are small and quick, so they are perfect for a brunch meal with a cup of coffee or hot chocolate. That being said, typically Ecuadorian breakfasts start at 7-7:30 a.m.
Traditional Ecuadorian breakfast with smashed plantains, bacon, baked tomatoes, fried / scrambled eggs, cantaloupe, and an avocado spread. Served with mango/pineapple juice and coffee.
Second, our university hosts stated that lunches are the biggest meal of the day. Normally eaten around 1 p.m., lunches are filled with a big source of protein (meat, poultry, seafood), potatoes, a light vegetable salad (non-lettuce based), and, the two most important components of any meal, rice and aji. I really want to dive into what aji is. Aji can have two definitions in Ecuador. Either it is the Ají (Ah-he) pepper that is based in Peru and can be referred to as any chili pepper, or it is the Ají condiment sauce that is made of onions, garlic, cilantro, and some peppers. That being said the condiment Ají is different for every single restaurant and family place. It has the consistency of a salsa verde, but can range from mild heat to quite spicy. Typically, it can be spread onto, well, everything. Rice, chicken, fish, plantains, soups, empanadas, etc. Think of it like every single restaurant you went to made house-made ketchup and it could be put onto anything they serve you. Honestly, it was addictive; our groups would get moderately sized bowls of the Ají and pass it around the table, usually asking for a second serving. The Ajís could range from having fresh passion fruit inside it to mashed green onions to pickled vegetables and peppers. Pair that with the cooked-to-perfection rice, which was at every lunch and dinner, and I could eat bowls of just those two things.
Back to the other parts of lunch, though, and you would likely find a soup as the beginning course. These soups ranged from squash-based to the traditional quinoa, barley or potatoes, and beef soup. The soups were always served with slices of avocado and that house-made ají, so even with the same type of soup, it was always a unique experience. When I asked our hosts about what other types of soups were possible, they referenced a soup called “Fanesca.” This traditional soup is a special dish, eaten only on or during Easter/Lent and is a mixture of dry salted cod, fresh and hard squash, fava beans, corn, rice, onions, fried plantains, peas, and cheese on top. I truly wish that we could come back to Ecuador during Easter because even the description made my mouth water.
A barley and quinoa soup with beef stock and beef short rib meat. The onions are supplied from the homemade Ají.
Third, there is a large variety of restaurants in Quito, and it is actually very Westernized. From the delightful T.G.I. Fridays to having a classic burger and fries at a local, Ecuadorian restaurant, I did not feel too out of place in Quito. There were sushi places, shawarma, sports bars, Italian and pizza shops, and even a Scottish gastropub. Quito’s vibrancy was only elevated by these restaurants who had fusions of their theme and Ecuadorian food. I can truly say that was the first time I ever had a salmon maki roll with a passionfruit sauce or smashed, grilled plantains as a bun for my sliders. While these “international” places had more themed foods, it was the combination of Ecuadorian and international food that made unbelievable dishes. Even in my other travels, I have always been extremely interested in how cultures can be combined and form astounding ideas that would not have worked individually.
At an Ecuadorian-Italian restaurant; ragu-based gnocchi with chorizo, onions, and fresh parmesan cheese.
Some of the meals I had were a burger with a small side of fries, a gnocchi ragu, pan-seared salmon with mushroom risotto, or fresh ceviche with a huge chunk of lime. Again, it follows this concept of having a great balance of international and local food. Particularly the ceviche, which I was told was a Quito-variety of ceviche and included popcorn, corn nuts, and plantain chips to grab handfuls and sprinkle into the ceviche or use the chips and bread as a vessel. While in Ecuador, there were two types of ceviche our group had: Shrimp and palm heart; and, honestly, the palm heart version was absolutely amazing. From the acidity of the tomatoes and lime juice to the crisp, crunchy texture of the palm heart and onions, and paired with a grilled chicken thigh, this dish was the most memorable.
Heart of palm ceviche with tomatoes, onions, cilantro, heart of palm, garlic, and lemon juice.
Shrimp ceviche with fully cooked shrimp, cilantro, tomato and vegetable broth, basil, onions, and a huge chunk of lime; this was served with popcorn, corn nuts, and plantain chips.
The last piece of advice given to me became clear during dinner. Actually, it was moreso before dinner… As I mentioned, the timing for breakfast was at 7 a.m. and lunch followed at 1 p.m. Following suit with this, dinner also became 6 hours later, typically at 7:30 p.m. being primetime to have food. This wasn’t my favorite component of eating Ecuador, as many times I would be getting on the hangry side of things from a long day of excursions and work. By the time dinner was done, it would be around 9 p.m. and I was ready for bed shortly thereafter. Now mind you, for dinner, it was not typically heavy food as well.
Our “goodbye dinner,” which consisted of mushroom risotto with gravy, sliced cabbage, celery, and radishes on top of a pan-fried and basted salmon. The salmon was extremely tender and could be cut thru with a fork.
All-in-all, I already miss Ecuadorian food. From the bright, colorful morning juices to the fresh seafood and local crops, especially the plantains, the food culture of Ecuador taught me how deeply connected Ecuadorians are to nature. The fact that there were streets of fresh baked goods; local and international cuisines; adequately priced meals; and surrounded by good friends, is incomparable. Being in Ecuador cultivated an inner reflection of myself, and allowed me to take life just a little bit slower. If you haven’t traveled abroad, I cannot urge you enough to start and Ecuador is the perfect place as your first trip! And when you go, make sure to add some extra ají just for me, I guarantee you will not forget it.
Oven-baked chicken with a sweet and spicy, passion fruit sauce, yellow rice, baked plantains, and a side salad with olive oil-based dressing.
The images found here were taken by Alexander (AJ) Taylor, the author of this article. AJ grants IFT to use these images within the corresponding article on Ecuadorian food culture.
A.J. Taylor | Linkedin
A.J. earned his degree in Biochemistry from Judson University and his Master’s in Food Science and Human Nutrition from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research then focused on Listeria monocytogenes, but has now transitioned into a Ph.D. program at UIUC in the hopes to discover more about the cocoa bean fermentation process using genomic, bioinformatic, and biochemical tools to define chocolate flavor from start to finish. A.J. emphasizes on the importance of science communication and loves to discuss multiple topics in the Food Science realm. A.J. is also an avid gamer from board games to video games, as well as a podcast-lover, if you have any recommendations, he is all ears!