There is no better way to get under the skin of a new destination than to indulge in a culinary journey of flavors. Ecuador has the perfect climate for growing so many delicious ingredients. I had every intention of tasting Ecuador to the fullest through the flavors of Quito.
Visitors often overlook Ecuador’s scenic capital, merely passing through on their way to and from the Galapagos Islands. However, anyone who enjoys indulging in a country’s culinary heritage will find much to explore within the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage site. After copious amounts of research on ingredients and dishes, I added quinoa, chocolate, avocado, and ceviché to my culinary “to do” list and left the rest to the experts at MetroJourneys, my boutique tour agency, once I arrived.
My Favorite Flavors of Quito – Locro de Papa
My top dish for both flavor and value was Locro de papa, a hearty potato based soup with the flavor of achiote. The spice is ground from the seeds of the annatto tree and is used to impart a woodsy, smoky flavor to a dish. The result is a certain earthiness that can be quite addictive.
When traveling, I always find hot soup a great dish for tasting the culinary culture with a bit of safety in mind. The toppings for this particular dish were the icing on the cake. A delicious selection of avocado, cilantro and cheese were offered as toppings, along with my favorite Ecuadorian surprise – popcorn.
Although the soup is available in many places, it is especially popular as a comfort food in the colder climate of the Andes highlands. The literal translation comes from the Quechua word meaning stew. After adding in all of the extras, it’s easy to see how it originated, and of course papa translates to one of the most prolific tubers in South America – potatoes. It is rumored there are hundreds of varieties in Ecuador, similar to the abundant number of birds.
Superfood Flavors of Quito
Thinking of Inca superfoods might bring to mind the ancient grain quinoa, but now there’s another building block to add to your list from the Andean region: lupine beans (lupini). Even though I had never heard of them before my visit, I predict this delicious bean will start appearing on more menus in the near future. Predating the Incas, the beans have a buttery flavor that packs a punch of protein, beating out most plant-based proteins.
Although the plant the lupini come from looks very much like what we would call lupine in the States, they are actually a member of the pea family. They are extremely bitter and need to be rinsed properly before eating or incorporating into a recipe. Containing more protein than both quinoa and soy beans, this beauty is rich in omega-3s like salmon.
Also called chocho beans, they can be ground into a flour and used as an ingredient for baking and desserts. Surprisingly, I first found the bean as street food in a tasty vegetarian version of ceviché. The ingredients were basically the same as a fish variety with chocho beans substituted for the fish. Served with plantain chips, it was delicious. Tourists can find the bean eaten in Peru, Bolivia, and Italy as well.
I have quinoa in common with the Incas. It’s a staple in my diet and on regular rotation in my kitchen. It is a whole grain, gluten-free, and, at the same time, stacked with protein. I enjoyed learning about the Ecuadorian use of it as an ingredient. It is stuffed into vegetables, used as a part of many salads, and used as a bed for grilled octopus with a tasty yellow pepper aioli. During my stay at Casa Zuleta, the on-site garden had rows and rows of the grain gently swaying in the breeze. The grain’s many health benefits make it an important staple in the country’s diet.
Street Food Flavors of Quito – Plátanos con Queso
Are you a lover of street food? It took me a while to jump onboard internationally, but now I’ve joined the brigade and can’t wait to taste the flavors of a new destination through favorite street food stalls. Across the street from the lovely Casa Gangotena is the buzzing Plaza San Francisco.
Deep fried plantains split open and loaded with fresh cheese were cooking at the edge of the popular gathering place. Not my usual breakfast, but they were so tasty and rich. I passed on the spicy aji criolla, a traditional Ecuadorian hot sauce. The combination of the hot, sweet plantain and fresh cheese was more than enough of a party in my mouth!
Canelazo – Drinking the Flavors of Quito
It seems every country has their own version of a hot mulled wine, and Ecuador is no exception. Canelazo is a rich version that is based on naranjilla and punta. Cinnamon and sugar are flavor profiles. Punta is a potent alcoholic drink with a base of sugar cane. Common as a home brew, it makes a tasty combination. I was cautioned by more than a few to only have one even though it is often served in a pitcher. The basic recipe is water, sugar, orange juice, cinnamon, and alcohol. The Colombians call it their version of “firewater.” Keep that in mind when you ask for a refill!
Helados de Paila – Refreshing Flavors of Quito
When I was growing up, my family used to make peppermint stick ice cream the old-fashioned way using rock salt and a hand crank. It took what seemed like hours, and we three sisters would have to take turns on the handle because our arms would get so tired turning it round and round. Nevertheless, once it was finished, there was no denying it was worth every bit of forearm fatigue.
Walking down a street in Quito, I happened upon a vendor making his own version of the frozen treat. While slowly pouring in a stream of liquid, he artfully swirled the mixture with a wooden spoon. Set on a hand-hammered bowl sitting in a bed of ice, the liquid slowly came together as it froze. I tried to ask the ingredients, but my butchered Spanish was no match for the cultural divide. The color drew me in, but the taste made me abandon all warnings from my infectious disease doctor, and I finished the small scoop before I could think twice about eating from a street vendor in a questionable location. My stomach survived just fine.
The good news for all lactose-intolerant travelers is that helados de paila contains no milk. It is much more like a sorbet. Casa Gangotena has its own unique take on the traditional Ecuadorian desert and makes it using liquid nitrogen. Tourists can watch the magic happen at the end of their meal. Tempting fruity flavors of the region—blackberry, soursop, and naranjilla made their way to my table as a delectable finale to a meal.
Native to the Andes, the popular tree tomato, also known as a tamarillo, was one of the indigenous fruits I wanted to try during my travels. My guide knew I was on the hunt to taste a freshly picked variety of the heart-shaped plant, and, as usual, it did not disappoint. You know you are in good hands when “as you wish” is the answer to any and all requests.
Different from our garden variety, the musky-scented fruit grows in clusters near the tips of branches. While they can vary in color from pale yellow to a deep purple, the entire selection I encountered were shades of red. Apparently, the lightest colors are the sweetest.
I took a small bite into one of the egg-shaped beauties and found the skin bitter and the flesh very tart and juicy. The black seeds are covered with pulp. Passion fruit was the closest taste I could compare it to. The fruit is used to make stews, jams and chutneys; I think it is too sour to eat raw. Normally, the flesh is scooped out of the skin. Blended with water and sugar, it is often served as a drink in Ecuador. The taste is faintly tomato-like.
Taxo – A New Flavor of Quito
Near my central headquarters of Hotel Gangotena, a local market was thriving with fruits and vegetables from the surrounding farmland. My guide from MetroJourneys introduced the native fruits and vegetables. Although I was familiar with many: guanábana, naranjilla, and dragon fruit, taxo was one I had never heard of before. This small mini football-like ingredient is often called the banana passion fruit. Filled with many seeds as well as a lot of pulp, the yellow fruit is used to make juice and a very popular ice cream.
Tasting Ecuador’s Chocolate
With my eyes closed and a deep breath, I tried to make the exquisite flavor of a chocolate I’d just eaten last forever. Ecuador is known for both chocolate production and rose exports. It has the perfect climate for both, and I’ve just had my first taste of the combination of the two—Andean Rose chocolate from Pacari. The brand is organic and one of the best the country has to offer.
Although the flavor was only in my mouth, I had the strange sensation of being able to smell the Rosa Andina from which the flavor comes. Intoxicating is the only way to describe it, and mildly sexy is only one of the sensations I felt. I could see in my mind’s eye the fields of roses I toured, white hot-houses dotting the landscape as I made my way back to Quito from the north. The award-winning Pacari had a small shop where they demonstrated the process only a short walk from my hotel. Every night a small treat waited for me on my pillow.
There are many delightful combinations; pink salt and nibs is another tasty blend. Lemongrass, coriander, and cardamom were full of flavor. But the heady Andean Rose is beyond dreamy. As the last bit disappeared from my tongue, I didn’t want to put anything in my mouth that might make the exquisite flavor and floral scent dissipate. Sustainable, fair trade, and organic, chocolate is available at Pacari, and a visit to their shop is a great way to support local.
Corn and More Corn – The Biggest Flavor of Quito
Finally, there was the ubiquitous ingredient I was most happy to add in at every meal. My Ecuador arrival was after midnight, so my first taste of the country was breakfast. Seeing popcorn on the buffet table put a smile on my jet-lagged face. The popped kernels followed me as a sidekick at every meal. Chulpi, the fried baby corn nuts, moved into first place as my favorite snack. How can you not love the essence of a country that serves up a slice of nostalgia around the clock and around every corner? From that very first meal, I knew the flavors of Quito and I would get along deliciously.