Compared with its neighbours Ecuador is pretty small (though it's still four times the size of Ireland). That being said, there is still huge variety in their cuisine. The complexity of their dishes is not what impressed me, however, but the simple use of the basic ingredients in a way that made them shine.
Ecuador has its own little corner of the Amazon where indigenous tribes still live. I was lucky enough to visit one community and to see the way they make a type of flatbread using only the yuca plant. The most fascinating aspect of the experience was not just seeing how they make the bread, but learning how all of the equipment used in the process is made from elements of the environment around them too.
The dish on which the bread is baked is made from clay gathered from the river bank at the end of the dry season. The device for wringing the plant to remove the excess liquid is made from plant fibres from the jungle. The trough for collecting the grated yuca is a hollowed out tree trunk. The graters themselves are made from old tin trays (OK, that one didn't come from the jungle but it used to be grated on a spiky tree trunk). The bread itself was tasty and crispy.
Versions of this sweet are popular in the USA, white it is called taffy. There they use a special machine to stretch and twist the sticky mess. In Baños in Ecuador, they still use the more traditional method. The sticky brown reduction made by boiling the liquid extracted from the sugar cane is thrown and stretched from a hook in the doorway of the shop all day long to the delight of the passing customers.
The sweets are tasty and are often flavoured with cinnamon and other spices. If you have a loose tooth, however, don't expect to come away with it as melcocha is super sticky.
It's more likely you've heard of tamale than humita. They're more or less the same thing but in South America they're generally called humita. They're made by mixing ground corn, onion, garlic, cream, cheese, eggs and sometimes other nice things, together and steaming them in a bundle made of the corn's own husk. They're often eaten at breakfast with a cup of coffee.
Llapingacho is unique to the Andean region of Ecuador. Using their delicious potatoes they make a sort of potato cake or hash brown. This takes the place on the plate occupied by arepas in Colombia or tortillas in Central America. Of course, with my love of potatoes, I really like them!
Hot Chocolate and Cheese
This is a quirk I'm not so sure about. Often, when served a cup of hot chocolate you'll also be given a chunk of cheese. Despite my doubts, I had read that the cheese was to be added to the drink and allowed to melt. I did as I was told and expected some magical change to occur and that the cheese would incorporate itself in the liquid. This was not the case. The cheese melted but its only apparent effect on the hot chocolate was to add some oil.
Having drank the chocolate I was left with a pile of melted cheese in the bottom of the cup. I ate it with a spoon hoping that here I would discover the curious reason for mixing the two but again the cheese tasted the same as it would without the chocolate. I can't see this turning the hot drinks industry on its head anytime soon!
This wasn't a particularly unusual dish and that's exactly what I loved about it. I ate this corvina (seabass) with potatoes, popcorn and ceviche in the market in Quito. It was the best deep-fried fish I've ever had. This fish itself was meaty, fatty and fresh. The batter was crispy and a perfect golden brown. I was in heaven!
When you hear talk of Cuy, generally people have tried it in Peru. With so many visitors to Cuzco and Machu Picchu this is hardly surprising. Cuy, however, has been a part of the diet in the Andes from Bolivia to Ecuador for hundreds of years. Nowadays it's generally offered cooked on the barbecue. It tastes a little like chicken and it doesn't deliver a lot of meat, or so I am told. I didn't actually try it as it has become a tourist attraction and is priced accordingly which placed it beyond my backpacker budget.
All in all I really enjoyed the Ecuadorian cuisine. The fact that they use the almighty dollar made it a little more challenging on a backpacker budget but I loved their use of (and respect for) their basic ingredients.