Ají and Almuerzos; a brief westernised guide to eating in Ecuador.

When it comes to putting stuff in my face, I am several things. For starters I have worked in fine dining degustation restaurants with semi-famous chefs who would feed me every day, and I am able to match wine and beer with food and describe everything in excruciating detail. I also have the amazing ability to eat almost anything, with my only exceptions being soft shell crab which breaks me out in a nasty rash and McDonalds which makes me want to hang myself from the ceiling beams. While I have become accustomed to the sort of food that most people can only afford to eat once a year, I also have a forever diminishing budget and the basic human need to fill up my body with sustenance, and have learned to eat like a backpacker, although once when I was down to my last few pennies I still insisted on putting myself through a twelve course meal in Christchurch. I’m a bit of a fucking hipster foodie dickhead sometimes.

So here I am in Ecuador – where the chocolate is as dark as the night sky and the coffee comes like the finest women; South American and bitter. Sometimes it takes a while to locate the best coffee here, but when you do, even the most talented kiwi baristas would struggle to compete. They were the first people to eat chilli peppers and so therefore, I bow down to their superiority and services towards modern cuisine.

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Eating here has been an interesting experience for me. I always make the effort to try to eat the local cuisine as I truly believe that a country’s food plays a huge role in its culture, plus I fucking love eating, as almost anybody who has spent any time at a table with me will tell you, usually with shaking fingers and a pale face as they recollect the horror of it. When I first arrived in Quito in November I was either eating at the house or going out to fancy restaurants to sample the local flavours. I discovered that ceviche in Ecuador is not the same as the ceviche I had been eating and indeed making for myself back in New Zealand; it’s more like a cold seafood soup as opposed to a piece of pickled fish. I became accustomed to the small bowl of chilli sauce in the middle of every table referred to as “Ají” (ah-hee) and had started splashing it excitedly on all my meals. It wasn’t, however, until about a week and a half into my time here, during a short break to the South, that I truly found out what it was like to eat as a local.

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My friends Annie and Henry attacking a giant empanada in Quito.
In every town and city there are these tiny little restaurants which are usually family owned, are jammed in everywhere and quite often don’t have a name. They’re the sorts of places you can’t guarantee the table has been wiped, where sometimes the meat is unspecified and where they will not speak a word of english. “Almuerzos” are a lunchtime tradition here, where you will be fed two or three courses, always starting with a soup, and the menu will change daily depending on what the restaurant has available and cooking out the back. Basically, one sits down and states the number of people eating almuerzos and then the food is brought out, no need for menus or niceties.

This is truly fantastic because, not only does it only cost somewhere between 1.50USD and 5.00USD per person (usually 2.00USD unless you’re somewhere expensive and touristy like the Galapagos) but you get a real sample of what it’s like to eat as the locals do and most of the decision making is done for you. If you don’t like rice, I would not recommend this. If you have any allergies that could result in a fatality, I would not recommend this. If you are a vegan, I would probably recommend not coming to Ecuador at all, and I would also recommend you seriously question your life choices (how can you live with without bacon?!). But, if you’re happy to risk any small intolerances and put almost anything in your mouth, you can be brilliantly surprised for such a small price, while supporting the local economy.

I will admit now, I have had some questionable bowel movements probably as a result of this, but still I have no regrets.

I will say also this; if you’re a European or from the westernised world and haven’t had much experience in eating what you probably consider “exotic flavours” then don’t go for almuerzos straight after stepping off the plane. It’s like putting yourself into glacial water, or the act of foreplay; start slow, before you submerge yourself in there. Almost all of the food you eat over here will expand your palette, so start off at the more reputable and “safe” restaurants to adjust your body to the new flavours and ingredients. If some of the food from the higher end restaurants isn’t agreeing with you then it’s probably worth staying away from almuerzos as I’m sure you would rather spend your romantic week in The Galapagos screaming, clenching and sweating between the sheets and not screaming, clenching and sweating on the toilet.

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Some fancy Ecuadorian food from Hacienda La Danesa near Guayaquil.
There’s a few surprises to look out for as well. They put banana or plantain with anything, and often fry it or grill it first. It’s pretty delicious but I’m sure it would enrage some Italians who have reservations about mixing “salty and sweet”. They put popcorn in their soup and ceviche as well as eating it at the movies. Fish is usually served on the bone. There are guinea pigs roasting on the side of the road. They sometimes even put cheese in their hot chocolate… I can almost hear you throwing up a little in your mouth through the Internet. Apparently it’s good; I must try it.

So before I leave you I will tell you about a couple of noteworthy meals. Firstly, the horneado; we visited a local market in Gualaceo near Cuenca where they had a shittone of whole pigs roasting. It tasted delicious but looked rather gruesome as they buried themselves elbow deep in pig corpse to retrieve your lunch.


Secondly, on Santa Cruz it was lobster season, so we ate a lobster. They showed it to us at the table, still moving, and for the next twenty minutes I tried not to think of what hell they put my dinner through. Of course we had to peel and pull it apart ourselves and they gave us a small hammer to further torture the already dead animal, but it was worth all of the hassle and horrifying thoughts in the end. If there is a lobster heaven, I don’t think it’s in my belly.

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I also had some ice cream served to me by somebody who looks like they came from the blueberry KKK.
img_0704I’m sure I will eat more oddities and possibly get a dire case of food poisoning before I leave, but that’s all part of the fun. I really think part of travelling is eating outside of your comfort zone, so get to a restaurant where you don’t understand the menu, ask the chef to feed you, and leave the gourmet burgers for when you’re back home.

– Tom @ indieroad.

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