I’ve said before how much I love checking out food markets in new places. Aside from the eye-catching displays of fruit & veg, in South American countries like Ecuador there are often stalls hawking hot food and cheap set meals made from the market’s best produce. Generally, the prices are astonishingly low because the ingredients are so readily available – and I imagine long standing deals with the produce stall keepers are arranged.
It can work out cheaper to buy a three or four course market almuerzo at $2.50 (typically consisting of a hearty soup, fresh salad, some sort of chicken or meat stew with rice, potatoes and a spicy salsa, with a fresh fruit smoothie or fruit salad to finish) than to make a picnic back at your hostel.
Like the increasingly popular street food scene in London, hot food stalls in Ecuadorian markets are strictly no frills operations: you are given just a single spoon to eat with (forget being shy about using hands and teeth to do what a spoon cannot) and kiddie sized plastic furniture to sit on. The food is always hearty, simple and rustic – nothing fancy.
Some examples of typical almuerzo fare: a plate brimming with sausage, chicken, meat stew, rice, fried egg, salad and lapingachos (fried potato and cheese cakes)…
Or yagauarlocro (potato soup with toppings of fried black pudding/blood sausage, crunchy onion and avocado). Love all the textures in one bowl…
But friendly service costs nothing and is often provided with abundance – the stall holders are all jokes and smiles as they motion you to sit down, or invite you to stick your nose into their saucepans to see what they’ve got cooking. Condiments are always interesting – aji (homemade hot salsa) is often on the tables along with freshly cut lime wedges and diced onion.
As well as being a great way to stay within tight backpacking budgets, eating in markets lets you get away from the gringo joints and sample what locals really eat. It’s not unusual to be squashed in at a table where a toothless octogenarian cholita, a suited business professional and a gaggle of uniformed schoolkids are all slurping away at identical set meals.
It was a setting like this where we had one of the most enjoyable and visually memorable meals of our time in Ecuador, on the top floor of a grubby market in Cuenca.
Pork is a big deal in Cuenca. I don’t know the exact recipe but it probably goes something like this:
- Get a bloody great big pig
- Blast it with heat until every inch of skin turns into thick, crisp crackling
- Plonk the whole thing out on a counter top – the head or a few of the legs will inevitably flop over the edges
- The serving lady must always be elbow deep inside the carcass to pull out the juiciest shreds of meat with her fingers
- The serving lady must also snap off samples of that insane crackling to lure people to sit at her tables
- Serve with potato cakes, maize, salad and a spoon
Markets are also a great place for breakfasts in the morning. In Ecuador, empanadas are not the Cornish pasty-like baked meaty treats you get elsewhere. Here they are more like donuts: fried until puffy, filled with mild creamy cheese and dusted with sugar.
Great with a coffee, or a cup of morocho, a thick hot drink made of maize simmered in milk with cinnamon, cloves, sugar and raisins – a bit like rice pudding.
Another uniquely Ecuadorian take on the empanada is empanadas verde, made with mashed green plantain. These are uncooked, waiting for a quick flash in a frying pan…
We kept seeing malta con huevo for sale at various drinks stalls in markets. After confirming that this does in fact mean “malt beer with egg” and is sometimes translated into the English “scrambled beer”, our curiosity was piqued enough to order a couple to try for oursleves. We watched in astonishment as the drinks stall lady filled a blender with an unlikely combination of ingredients. In went a bottle of pilsner, a slurp of alfalfa juice, a bit of borojo pulp from a packet (a sour fruit, pic below) and finally a raw egg to be whizzed together.
The end result was peculiar but surprisingly drinkable – the earthy taste of beer somehow works with the grassy alfalfa. We both finished our glasses, albeit with looks of confusion on our faces. I think malta con huevo would be a great hangover cure – a filling meal in a glass, gentle on the tummy, with a bit of hair of the dog, vitamins from the fruit and alfalfa and protein from the egg. Only a drunkard could have invented it!
A less challenging drink commonly served in Ecuador’s markets is jugo or thick juices: fresh fruit blended with water or milk and sugar. Ecuador’s diverse ecosystems yield a wealth of native fruit and even the smallest stalls have dozens of options. Mark has developed a taste for tangy tamarino (tamarind) and my favourite is tomate d’arbol (tomatillo), a beautiful fruit with a taste which is hard to pin down – the seeds, internal structure and sharpness are reminiscent of an unripe tomato but there is also a delicate, fruity flavour a bit like melon.
It seems to grow everywhere in Ecuador but I haven’t come across it before in the UK; I read that you can source the frozen pulp which would work in a blended juice but not sure if you can get the fresh fruits. Tomate d’arbol is also awesome in aji de tomate d’arbol – a punchy salsa made with the fruit and hot chillies. I have bookmarked this recipe to play with later.
Although Quito is miles from the coast, one of the specialities of the capital city’s food market is corvina (sea bass). This meal at Quito’s Mercado Central consisted of a huge slab of the fish served with ceviche (in Ecuador, ceviche is quite soupy, with lots of lime juice), potatoes and popcorn – all for $4!
After the epic pork at Cuenca’s market, we ate another kind of pig; guinea pig or cuy is a delicacy in Ecuador as well as Peru. The friendly man who made us our Panama hats in Cuenca recommended a local place which specialised in cuy, Tres Estrellas.
It takes at least an hour to cook so you have to call in advance to avoid a long wait; although they are little creatures they are quite fatty so time is needed to get a really crispy skin.
Ecuadorians think the best bit is the feet so we tried them – they taste like pub pork scratchings. We were slightly more squeamish about the head, which still had teeth intact…
Ecuador grows some of the best cacao in the world and if you avoid the ubiquitous Nestlé bars, you can find really fine chocolate. We stocked up on some sublime bars at Quito’s Kallari cafe, which is linked to a small artisan producer in the countryside.
The cafe also makes gorgeous tarts, cakes and brownies – we couldn’t resist sharing this gooey pud.
Before I came to Ecuador I read this Guardian article which indicated that Ecuador’s food scene was behind Peru’s and eagerly snapping at its neighbour’s heels. Some of the country’s top chefs and foodies seem to be envious and indignant about Peru’s global culinary success and can’t help but compare the two cuisines.
But after a couple of weeks of happy, stimulating eating around Ecuador, I see no need for this anxious “keeping up with the Joneses” attitude – Ecuadorean food deserves to be more than just second fiddle to the popular Peruvian trend. It is hugely underrated and should be recognised in its own right.