It’s easy to eat well for little in Ecuador, whose three distinct geographical regions produce a startling array of foods, including exotic fruits you’ll never have seen before, and three regional styles of cooking.
Despite this variety, there’s surprisingly little variation between the standard restaurant menus in these areas, with either fish (usually trucha or corvina, trout or sea bass), chicken or beef served with rice, chips or patacones (fried plantain), topped off with a smidgen of salad. Though the fish or chicken may be fried, boiled or breaded, it’s easy to get tired with the overall monotony of the cuisine, meaning you’ll want to be on the lookout for the more exciting comida típica, the traditional food of each region, cropping up on menus.
Ecuador’s restaurants range from those charging Western prices for top-class international cuisine to the grimiest roadside diner serving chicken, rice and little else besides. The majority of restaurants, however, are clean but modest and offer decent food at low prices. Most of them simply call themselves restaurantes, but others you might encounter are cevicherías (for ceviche), asaderos (usually roast chicken), pizzerías (pizzas), marisquerías (seafood), comedores (usually for cheap set-meals), picanterías (cheap snacks and sometimes spicy food), parrilladas (grillhouses) and paradores (roadside stophouses). The Chinese restaurant, or chifa, is to Ecuador as the curry house is to Britain; chifas are found in just about every town in the country, dishing out tasty, inexpensive food to a loyal local following. The typical chifa dishes are chaulafán (fried rice) and tallarines (noodles), both mixed with meat and vegetables and served in large helpings.
Vegetarians are likely to become well acquainted with pizzerías and chifas for their tallarines con verduras (noodles and veg), among the few hot veggie meals available across the country. There’s no shortage of vegetarian food in the main tourist centres, but away from those, the cry of “soy vegeteriano” or “vegeteriana” for a woman (“I’m a vegetarian”), will sometimes be met with offers of fish or chicken. A quick discussion with the staff usually ends with them finding something appropriate for you, even if it’s just egg, chips and rice – and even the blandest food can be enlivened by ají, the chilli sauce found on most restaurant dining tables, one of the few spicy-hot elements of Ecuadorian cooking.
Many restaurants open early in the morning and serve breakfast (desayuno) in either the continental or americano varieties, the former being bread (pan), butter (mantequilla) and jam (mermelada), accompanied by coffee (café) and juice (jugo); add huevos revueltos or fritos (scrambled or fried eggs) to this and you’ve got an americano. In the Oriente, you’ll come across the petrolero (oil man), which is all this plus a chunk of meat. Fruit salad, granola and yogurt also make appearances on breakfast tables in tourist centres.
Eating out can be very economical if you stick to set menus; at lunch this is called almuerzo and at dinner merienda, which consists of two or three courses and a drink for about $1–3. À la carte and individual main courses (platos fuertes) are typically $3–6 – you’re probably in a smart place if it’s much more than $7. Remember, better places will add twelve percent tax (IVA) and ten percent service to your bill.
Markets are among the cheapest sources of food, not only because of the range of nutritious fruits and produce on offer, but also the makeshift restaurants and stalls doling out fried meats, potatoes and other snacks. Although some stallholders may not be overly scrupulous on the hygiene front, sizzling-hot food prepared and cooked in front of you should be fine. Street vendors also supply snacks such as corn-on-the-cob or salchipapas, a popular fast food comprising a bag of chips propping up a sausage, all doused in ketchup. Vendors often carry their wares onto buses and parade the aisles to tempt passengers; as you haven’t seen how or where these have been prepared, you should probably resist their advances.
In the highlands, a typical meal might start off with a locro, a delicious soup of potato, cheese and corn with half an avocado tossed in for good measure. This is great for vegetarians, who’ll want to steer well clear of its relative, yaguarlocro, which swaps the avocado for a sausage of sheep’s blood, tripe and giblets. Other soups might be caldo de patas, cattle hoof soup; caldo de gallina, chicken soup; or even caldo de manguera, which literally means “hose pipe soup”, a vague euphemism for its pork sausages made from viscera. A number of different grains, such as morocho, similar to rice, and quinoa, a small circular grain, are also thrown into soups, along with whatever meat and vegetables are available. Other possible starters, or snacks in their own right, include empanadas, corn pasties filled with vegetables, cheese or meat.
For a main course you might go for llapingachos, cheesy potato cakes – cheese, corn and potatoes are big in the highlands – often served with chorizo (sausage), lomo (steak) or pollo (chicken) and fried eggs. The famous cuy, guinea pig roasted whole, has been for centuries a speciality of the indigenous highlanders, and is rather good, if a bit expensive. Another traditional dish is seco de chivo, a stew usually made out of mutton in the highlands, and goat on the coast. The unappetizing-looking guatita, tripe smothered in peanut sauce, is actually much better than it sounds.
Mote, a hard corn peeled with calcium carbonate solution and then boiled in salt water, is frequently served as accompaniment to main courses, particularly fritada, seasoned pork deep-fried in lard, and hornado, pork slow-roasted in the oven. Motepillo is a Cuenca speciality, in which the mote is mixed with eggs to make corn-filled scrambled eggs. Another common side dish is tostado, toasted maize, or canguil, popcorn that often comes with soups and ceviches.
If you still have space left then there’s morocho de leche, similar to rice pudding flavoured with cinnamon and often served cold; quesadillas, baked cheese doughballs brushed with sweet syrup; humitas, ground corn mixed with cheese, sugar, butter and vanilla, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed; or quimbolitos, which are similar but more spongy. Higos con queso, figs with cheese, is another common highland dessert.
Coastal delicacies, unsurprisingly, centre on seafood. The classic ceviche is prepared by marinating raw seafood in lime juice and chilli, and serving it with raw onion. It can be dangerous to eat uncooked seafood, so it’s worth knowing shrimps (camarones) and king prawns (langostinos) are usually boiled for ten minutes before they’re marinated. If a cevichería (ceviche restaurant) looks unhygienic, skip it. On the north coast, encocados are fantastic fish dishes with a Caribbean flavour, cooked in a sauce of coconut milk, tomato and garlic and often served with a huge mound of rice. Bananas and plantain often replace the potato, appearing in many different forms on the side of your plate. Patacones are thick-cut plantains fried up in oil and served with plenty of salt, while chifles are thinly cut plantains cooked the same way. Bolón de verde is a rather stodgy ball of mashed baked plantain, cheese and coriander traditionally served as a snack with coffee.
The Oriente has rather less well-defined specialities, but you can count on yuca (a manioc similar to yam) making an appearance, alongside rice, bananas and river fish (including the scrawny piranha). As a guest of a forest community, you may eat game such as wild pig or guanta, a large rodent not that different to cuy.
Ecuador has more types of fruit than you can imagine – certainly far more than there are English names for – and just about all of them are made into mouthwatering juices (jugos). The most common fruit juices are made from maracuyá (passion fruit), tomate de árbol (tree tomato, also known in the West as tamarillo; it’s orange and more fruity than a tomato), naranjilla (native to Ecuador, sweet and tart at the same time), piña (pineapple), naranja (orange), guanábana (a very sweet white fruit), taxo (another kind of passion fruit), mora (blackberry) and babaco (indigenous relative of the papaya, juicy and slightly acidic), but there are many others. Juices can come pure (puro) or mixed with water (make sure it’s purified). When they’re mixed with milk they’re called batidos.
Bottled fizzy drinks (colas or gaseosas) can be obtained all over Ecuador, particularly Coca-Cola, Sprite, Fanta and 7-Up (which is called “eseven”). If you want to take your pop away with you, you’ll have to pay a deposit on the glass bottle; a more common solution is to get it put en bolsa, in a small plastic bag with a straw. Plastic bottles and cans are becoming more common, but they are more expensive. Bottled mineral water can be bought throughout the country in still (sin gas) or sparkling (con gas) varieties. Home brands, such as Güitig from the mineral springs at Machachi, are facing stiff competition against plastic-bottled imports.
Considering Ecuador is a major coffee producing country, it’s a shame there’s not more of the real stuff about. Most cafés and restaurants will have a jar of Nescafé on the table, though a few places have esencia de café, a liquid coffee distillate. You’ll get a cup of hot milk if you ask for café con leche, and hot water for black coffee if you specify café negro (sometimes simply called tinto). Only well-to-do places are likely to be able to get you a café pasado or filter coffee. Tea (té) is served without milk and usually with a slice of lemon. Asking for té con leche is likely to get you a cup of hot milk and a teabag. For just a dash of milk, it’s best not to say anything until your (milkless) tea arrives, and then ask for a little milk. Herbal teas (aromáticas or mates) come in a variety of flavours, some of which are familiar, while others are made from native plants.
Apart from the output of a few small microbreweries in the biggest cities, Ecuadorian beer essentially comes in two forms: Pilsener is the people’s beer, weak, light and in big bottles; Club is a bit stronger, a bit more expensive and also comes in an export-strength green-bottled variety. South American imports like Brahma are increasingly common, but to sip European and US beers, available in some city bars, you’ll have to pay for the privilege. You’ll find good Chilean and Argentinian wine in the better restaurants for less than you’d pay at home.
The local tipple, especially in the sierra, is chicha, a fermented corn drink of which there are many varieties. Buckets – literally – of the stuff do the rounds at all highland fiestas. In the Oriente, the chicha is made from yuca, which is chewed up, spat in a pot and allowed to ferment. Aguardiente (also called caña or punta) is a sugar-cane spirit, sharper than rum (ron), that will take off the roof of your mouth. In fiestas they might mix it with fruit juices, or in the sierra drink it as canelazo, adding sugar, cinnamon (canela) and hot water to make a traditional highland warmer. On the coast it stars in many cocktails, the most ubiquitous being caipiriña, in which it (or rum) is combined with lime juice, sugar and ice.