Ecuador: Small country, many tastes

Ecuador's cuisine ranges from the Pacific to the Andes to the Amazon basin. Everyone just wanted to talk about the guinea pigs: Yes, they were cute. Yes, they come roasted. Yes, they were delicious, and if you couldn’t get into them, were you sure you’d come to the right message board?

Everyone just wanted to talk about the guinea pigs: Yes, they were cute. Yes, they come roasted. Yes, they were delicious, and if you couldn’t get into them, were you sure you’d come to the right message board? My first brush with Ecuadorean food on the Internet made it sound fairly single-minded. This was circa 2000, and I confess that I never learned much more after that, as a cuisine seemingly built on guinea pig seemed a little too bony for me.

‘‘Guinea pig is a very indigenous food, typically eaten in the mountains,’’ Arsenio Garcia told me recently, when I asked him about the one Ecuadorean dish I knew of. ‘‘I heard there’s a place in Queens that serves it. But it has to be very fresh,’’ he continued, in a tone that suggested that Queens is far enough away from Ecuador that we shouldn’t try. An industrial designer and enthusiastic home cook who grew up on the Ecuadorean coast, Garcia was more excited to talk about what else his homeland offers, the dishes that are less likely to be the subject of dares and bets: things like the very-fun-to-say llapingachos, meat- or cheese-stuffed potato patties, or cazuela, seafood baked under a thick blanket of plantain purée.

‘‘It’s a small country, but it’s very diverse,’’ Garcia said as we settled in at an Ecuadorean restaurant for juices made from naranjilla, a fruit that looks like an orange geode and tastes like passion fruit that got extra friendly with grape bubble gum. It’s a flavor I’d never imagined, let alone encountered, and Garcia smiled when I said so. He talked about Ecuador’s incredible variety of flora and fauna, owing to a geography that ranges from the warm Pacific to the freeze-drying heights of the Andes to the soup-hot Amazon basin within just a couple of hundred miles.

We continued the conversation back in his kitchen, where he prepared pescado encocado, fish simmered in a tomato-tinged coconut sauce. ‘‘This is a recipe from the coastal region of Esmeraldas,’’ he said. I noted that it seemed a lot like a dish called moqueca popular in Bahia, on the Brazilian Atlantic, literally at the other end of South America, where the cooking is a rich blend of African traditions mixed with native and Creole influences. ‘‘Ah,’’ Garcia said, ‘‘maybe that’s because Esmeraldas is home of the Afro-Ecuadoreans. But in the mountains, we have more pure indigenous people and mestizos. A lot of Lebanese came in the late 1800s, and Chinese in the last century. My mother’s mother is a redhead. I told you it’s incredibly diverse!’’

Garcia wanted me to leave with recipes from different corners of his homeland. We whirred up a quick sauce from his mother’s Andean hometown called ají Cuencano, a vinaigrettelike blend of chiles, lime, onion, cilantro, oil and tomate de árbol — another passion-fruit love child, this one with the savory depth of tomatoes. We made a quick stew of tomatoes, onions and tuna, stuffing that into cakes of plantain and peanut. Once crisped in oil, they were corviches, a specialty of Garcia’s coastal home region, Manabí, and they are delicious: Spots and spikes of crunch; the slight starchy sweetness of plantain; the buttery peanuts rounding it out before coming to the tender crispness of onion, the slipping flakiness of tuna. You normally wouldn’t serve the corviches and aji Cuencano together, because they are from different landscapes, but Garcia does, to help show a bigger picture of Ecuadorean food.

As we cooked in his home full of beautiful objects — that set of Oxo measuring spoons you probably have? He designed them — I wondered if his designer’s mind is what makes him so interested in the food of his homeland. If a mind that plucks objects out of the ether is constantly seeking grounding in memories, time or place. And then I remembered what Garcia also mentioned when I first asked him about guinea pigs. ‘‘I heard some people will bring back frozen ones in their luggage,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a way of keeping connection with your land. So if I cook something from Ecuador and share it, it’s like sharing a part of the country.’’ For some that connection is found in particular tastes. For others, it may be finding the ways history ties together different landscapes and cultures into a cuisine.

Recipe: Corviches | Ají Cuencano

New York Times | By FRANCIS LAM

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