Ecuador is known for its fabulous exotic fruits, high-quality fish and seafood, and the countless varieties of Andean potatoes. Across the country you’ll find a broad spectrum of national and regional dishes, including shrimp, toasted corn and pastries stuffed with spiced meats. If you’re feeling courageous, you can put your culinary bravery to the test with roasted cuy (guinea pig) or tronquito (bull penis soup).
The regular diet of rice, potatoes, and meat (beef and chicken everywhere, pork in the Sierra) is complimented by another national culinary institution, ají (hot sauce). Most Ecuadorian restaurants and homes have their own version of ají, each with its own intensity of picante (a word derived from the verb to bite or to sting), so sample a bit before smothering your food! If you don’t see a little bowl of ají on your table, just ask they’ve surely got it. In addition to ají, basic dishes are usually accompanied by the proverbial rice, small salad, and potatoes or patacones (squashed, fried green bananas). On the coast and in the Amazon, potatoes are often supplemented or replaced by menestra (beans or lentils) or yucca (manioc, cassava).
Soups are without doubt Ecuador’s specialty. Most lunches and dinners are accompanied by a savory soup as the first course. Locro, made with cheese, avocado and potato, sounds a bit odd, but is actually quite tasty. Chupe de pescado, a fish and vegetable soup with coastal origins, is becoming popular throughout the country. Bolder diners can try yaguarlocro, a potato soup made with sprinklings of blood. Those ready to throw their inhibitions completely to the wind should dip their spoon into caldo de pata, a broth containing chunks of boiled cow hooves, considered a delicacy by locals and believed by hopeful men to increase virility.
Other dishes found in your everyday restaurant or home include: seco de pollo (stewed chicken accompanied by rice and avocado slices); lomo salteado (thin beef steak covered with onions and tomatoes); and seco de chivo (braised goat – or more commonly, lamb or mutton – served with a mound of rice. Tortillas de maíz (thin corn pancakes) and choclo (barbecued corn-on-the-cob) are sold by street vendors and make great snacks any time of day.
If after your share of bull penis soup you find yourself hankering for a familiar brand burger, burrito or pizza, don’t panic – the major cities feature (for better or worse) the omnipresent U.S. fast food chains, such as Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Burger King and McDonald’s.
Eating on a budget in Ecuador
For those on a budget, the best way to stretch your money is to take advantage of set plate meals, an Ecuadorian institution in many restaurants. Lunches (almuerzos) and dinners (meriendas) usually give you a soup, main course (including meat) and dessert for around $1.50. Vegetarian versions are often available upon request.
At only pennies per bite, bakeries offer a delicious range of breads, sweet pastries and savory snacks, such as empanadas (hot, crispy meat or cheese-filled pastries) and llapingachos (potato and cheese pancakes). Dishes sold in the street are also quite cheap, but hygiene is often questionable, and you may quickly surpass your intestinal limits. A good rule to follow is the “locals rule” – if the place is frequented by many locals, the food probably merits joining the crowd.
If you’re the cook, street markets and stalls in major towns sell a good array of fruit and vegetables. You can also pick up exotic spices, as well as fresh herbs to make sauces, infusions or remedies.
In need of some pre-packaged food? Supermarket chains in the big cities have enough variety to keep the average chef happy. If you’re dreaming of English blue cheese or German sausage, there are a handful of specialty stores and delis, particularly in the smarter districts of Quito, which will comfort those taste buds that don’t realize just how far you are from home.
Seafood is popular and plentiful throughout Ecuador. Lobster dinners can be enjoyed along the coast and in major cities for very low prices. In Esmeraldas province on the northern coast, your taste buds will happily discover a new culinary twist with encocados, seafood dishes prepared in coconut milk.
The signature dish of the country, however, is ceviche, a seafood dish marinated in lemon and onions – Ecuador’s answer to sushi. Unlike sushi however, Ecuadorian ceviche is always dished up with popcorn! Ceviche can be made of fish (de pescado), shrimp (de camarones), shellfish (de concha), squid (de calamar) or all of the above (mixta). Exercise caution, however, as improperly prepared ceviche – especially de concha – has become one of the primary vectors for cholera and other nasty bacteria. Most restaurants are aware of this and act accordingly, but choose your dining establishment wisely.
Vegetarians will be pleasantly surprised by the wide selection of vegetarian options in Quito, Otavalo, and Baños. Don’t expect too many menu options outside of these three cities, however. You will often find yourself ordering pollo sin pollo – the chicken plate without the chicken. You may get a few raised eyebrows, but at least your meal will be meat-free.
As an up-and-coming cosmopolitan city, Quito also offers a good selection of international cuisine. If you fancy Argentine steak, Italian pasta, Japanese sushi or Swiss fondue, you won’t be disappointed. Expect prices substantially lower than those in the United States or Europe. Chinese, Mexican, Cuban, Arabic, Indian and vegetarian meals are available in Quito at reasonable prices. Outside of Quito and Guayaquil, only Baños offers a good mixture of international cuisine.
Vocabulary of food preparation:
A la brasa: grilled
Al vapor: steamed
Apanado: batter-fried / breaded
Encocado: stewed in coconut
Seco: stewed meat plate
For the sake of your intestinal happiness, drink only bottled or boiled water, not water from the tap. Distilled and sparkling waters from Ecuadorian springs are available throughout the country and are of good quality. If you head for the tap, you’ll probably be heading for the bathroom, or worse, the doctor a few days later. Remember that tap water is frequently used in ice, so request your beverages sin hielo (without ice) in restaurants.
With the mouthwatering exotic fruits of Ecuador come delicious fruit juices, (jugos) including naranjilla (with a lime-rhubarb taste), tomate de árbol (tree tomato), mora (blackberry), guanábana (soursop), maracuyá (passion fruit) and papaya.
Bottled and canned fizzy drinks (including Coca Cola, Sprite and Fanta) are widely available throughout the country, as are teas and coffees. In spite of Ecuador’s status as a coffee producing country, coffee quality is often rather disappointing, as the best beans are usually sent overseas. But if you can hunt down a good cafe you’ll be able to revel in some first-rate caffeine, made from home-grown beans.
Chicha is a traditional libation found throughout Andean countries, made from fermented maíz (corn), rice or yuca (manioc). In some rural parts of Ecuador, the fermentation process is augmented by human saliva: Chicha makers (typically women) chew the ingredients and spit them back in the pot to brew. It’s not a good idea to sample it though, as hepatitis B is commonly passed with the bowl. A variety of Andean versions of chicha exist that aren’t chewed and may be safe.
Not to be missed is the Andean drink of choice: canelazo (or canelito), a popular fiesta drink similar to a hot toddy, made of boiled water, sugar cane alcohol, lemon, sugar and cinnamon.
Good wine from Chile and Argentina is widely available. The cheapest way to enjoy the grape is in the form of a carton (yes, a box!) from the local supermarket. The quality is not the best and you won´t get the glorious sound of a popping cork, but you’ll pay only half the price. If your palate is a bit more finicky, fine wines from Chile, France, Spain and Italy are also available. Ecuadorian wine tends to be sweet, though some vineyards are now producing fine wines.
Most bars serve pilsner-style beers of decent quality and very good value. The most popular brand is Pilsener, which comes in a large bottle. There are few microbreweries in Quito and the Turtle’s Head on La Niña and Amazonas has a good sampling. If you are a fan of Cuba Libres, Daiquiris or Pina Coladas, the local rum is great, as well as ridiculously cheap. And finally, if you want to develop that W.C. Field’s red face or Jimmy Durante nose, why not try the local firewater, aguardiente. It’s strong, frightfully cheap and guaranteed to keep your toes warm.
Common Sense at the Table: a few tips
Allow yourself a bit of time to adjust intestinally; eat very cautiously the first few days and then slowly begin to venture out on a culinary limb. Keeping healthy is not only about avoiding germs, but also about acclimating to new ones. Many Ecuadorians complain about traveling to the States and getting sick from U.S. food or water, so it goes both ways!
Going against popular belief, food, rather than water, is usually the culprit of intestinal problems. Eating well-cooked, piping hot food is possibly the best way to avoid problems. Avoid uncooked and under-cooked foods. Especially salads should be avoided until you’ve developed some local intestinal flora to be able to handle it. Fruits that must be peeled before being eaten, such as bananas, pineapples and oranges, are usually a safe bet.
Most (but not all!) tourist-frequented places understand the limitations of the foreigner stomach and act accordingly in the kitchen. Food bought on the street and in apparently unsanitary restaurants should be avoided.
Assume that water is unsafe to consume unless you know otherwise. Ask for bottled water (agua pura or agua con gas). The easiest and safest way to ensure safe drinking water (other than direct from a sealed bottle) is to boil it. Remember, however, that once the water cools it can be recontaminated, so keep purified water in a covered container. Iodine tablets are an excellent alternative when boiling is impractical. Your local cafe may use water from a variety of sources in making its juices, so exercise caution in your choice of establishments. Milk is often used in fruit juices to lend a creamier texture, but is sometimes not pasteurized, so once again be cautious. Like water, milk can be purified by boiling.
Updated June 20, 2013