The gastronomy of a place reveals a lot about the society where it developed. The ingredients, recipes, and preparation ways reflect details about the relationship of those people with their environment, the climate, and the resources they have available. It also explains about the historical processes these societies went through and how they became or adapted to the influence of other human groups, new forms of trade, and new technologies.
Since it is a topic that can encompass so much, it is necessary to contextualize a little about the territory and the main historical processes of the destinations to talk about their culinary culture. Many readers may find it difficult to form an idea about Ecuador, a small country if we compare it to its immediate neighbors (Colombia and Peru), which is located on the north-western coast of South America. Many perhaps identify more easily the Galapagos Islands, which are part of this country and well deserve to be so internationally recognized for their fascinating biodiversity and beauty.
Certain geographical and climatic characteristics determine the abundance of natural wealth present in Ecuadorian territory. We can mention factors of great influence like its location in the center of the planet or the confluence of two marine currents in front of its coasts, nevertheless, it might be that the most determining one is the presence of the Andean mountain range, which when entering from the North, divides into two branches and crosses towards the south of the country, generating three natural regions in the continental part (Coast, Andes, and Amazonia). From sea level to more than 6,300 meters high,, the Andes generate fertile soils and various altitudinal floors, irrigated by large watersheds. These conditions merge into ideal spaces for the existence of high biodiversity ecosystems, which have flourished hyper-concentrated in their territory. This explains that Ecuador has 56 protected areas, of which, 7 have been declared biosphere reserves, and the country has second place in terms of percentage of surface area protection in Latin America.
Perhaps having named this Latin American country after the imaginary line that divides the world into the northern and southern hemispheres, may lead people to think that there was nothing more to be said about its history or culture, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Several pre-Columbian cultures developed in their territories and lived in harmony with their environment, developing a deep relationship of respect for nature or Pachamama (Mother Earth). As the human groups extended and increased in number, trade arose between populations, allowing them to include in their diets ingredients from other natural regions. There were marked differences between the diets since then, determined by the type of plants that were domesticated and cultivated, as well as differences in animal protein to which they had access.
The predominant crops of this first stage were corn, potatoes, beans, and quinoa. In addition to these, several products were consumed more intensively in their production regions. Cocoa, yucca, sweet potato, chili, avocado, peanuts, tomatoes, salt, cotton, and even coca are some of the endemic products that, when the Spanish arrived years later, were integrated into a new mestizo cuisine which was born in the colonization process. The resulting society shared its evolution with the conquered indigenous population and developed a cuisine where many characteristics melted and new ones appeared, as a result of the adaptation of the recipes of the old continent to the local ingredients, the incorporation of indigenous recipes or techniques, and the arrival of many other products, which not only came from Europe but from other confines of the planet. Such is the case of sugar cane, rice, and bananas, which arrived from further continents and today are part of the very essence of the country’s gastronomic expressions. The same happened with several foods of animal origin. Foods derived from cows, pigs, and chickens were included in the culinary repertoire allowing preparations that today are part of rich Ecuador’s culinary culture.
Certain ingredients characterize the kitchens of each region. In the coast and the island regions, for example, the fruits of the sea like lobsters, shrimps, and fish are combined with green plantain, bananas, coconut, and rice, whereas predominate dishes in the inter-Andean region are based on pig meat and hen, and combined with corn, potato, mote or quinoa and other grains, grasses and seeds.
In the Amazon region, the cassava or yucca is the main ingredient and is accompanied by more “exotic” meats that originate in the jungle and rivers. Choosing which dishes to mention is a real challenge considering that the preparation number is high and multiplies when you have different versions of a typical dish in every other province. Some of the examples are the Ecuadorian ceviche, the hornado, or the fritada. Another point to highlight is that Ecuador could probably be named as the world center for soups thus according to recent researches, there are more than 550 registered soup recipes in the country. That explains the fact that for Ecuadorians a lunch without soup is not a lunch. The same may apply to the presence of the “ají” on the table. This sauce is made with different types of chili, an endemic fruit originating from our native people, and today is combined with different ingredients according to the place and even the family. The endless number of versions of this spicy sauce, complement and characterizes the unique flavor of Ecuadorian gastronomy.
But besides its regions, gastronomy in Ecuador is also marked by typical dishes prepared on specific dates, seasons, and festivities. Recipes such as Fanesca (a strong soup with multiple grains) eaten at Easter, or the Colada Morada (a sweet hot beverage with native fruits and herbs), which are enjoyed with bread guaguas on the Day of the Dead, are elements that characterize our way of commemorating dates and celebrations. Above all, those preparations are the reason that still gathers several generations of each family in the kitchen, which is undoubtedly the heart of Ecuadorian homes.
It is evident that Ecuador’s gastronomic personality is very diverse and has been hardly exposed at an international level yet. These flavors and tastes were created and concentrated for years, almost exclusively in the hands of mothers, grandmothers, and women who were in the service, are today the object of study and experimentation of recent generations. Outstands the role played by chefs, cooks, and researchers, who are currently the main protagonists in the process of recognition and appreciation of the national culinary culture that Ecuador experiences. This process is in an initial stage for Ecuador and so it is in other Latin American destinations. Having started to create awareness of this richness is excellent news for the country and the region because we cannot protect or rescue what is not known or valued.
It is the scope of that culinary richness that makes me feel a great responsibility to be able to share the slightest idea of what my country has to offer in terms of gastronomic experience. Perhaps this description does not qualify even as an appetizer because it would be necessary to extend the description much more to achieve that task. What is certain is that Ecuador’s cuisine is still a box of surprises, with delicacies that have been slow-cooked among thousands of stories and characters, and combined in the pass of centuries to finally be discovered by the world.
Written and translated by: Lilí Torres C.