15 Favorite Christmas Foods from Ecuador
Christmas represents a bumper period for the Ecuadorian travel and tourism industry, with thousands of people from the highlands flooding the popular coastal resort towns (good luck getting near an ATM in any of them). Popular inland tourist destinations such as Mindo and Baños are swamped, and many people travel long distances to reconnect with relatives they haven’t seen in months.
The days between Christmas and New Year’s day are looked forward to all year, like Carnival at the end of February. Nearly all work stops while people reflect on the year past and make plans for the one coming.
The relaxation and revelry last until midnight of December 31st, when paper maché dolls, called monigotes and representing the struggles of the past year, are burned on the sidewalk. Enough fireworks are to start a small war are lit, people wear yellow underwear to attract prosperity, everyone wishes each other well, and then they all party until dawn.
No celebration would be complete without the food appropriate to the occasion. Here’s what Ecuadorians traditionally eat around Christmas (Navidad).
Note: Most of the recipes provided are translated from Spanish, by Google, for the sake of authenticity. If something you read in them doesn’t make any sense, that’s probably not what’s meant. For example, the words for “lard” and “butter”, as well as those for “lime” and “lemon”, are often confused in translation.
One of the easiest ways to put a guest at ease is to put something in their hands as soon as they arrive, preferably something tasty and liquid. Here are a few delicious Christmas-y options from Ecuador.
Ecuador is, for the most part, far from cold around Christmas time. The Ecuadorian version of eggnog, rompope, is still served, though, simply for its taste.
The major differences from European-style eggnog are that rompope can be made with almost any kind of liquor and is often bottled and sold in convenience stores. If you prefer the flavor of rompope made from scratch, you can use this recipe.
Popular across Latin America, the spirit aguardiente is made from sugar cane. It has little flavor of its own but is perfectly suited to cocktails. One of these is served warm and hails from Quito, 9,000 feet above sea level.
The basic flavor component is cinnamon, usually sweetened with panela (a highly unrefined form of sugar). This is often rounded out with citrus flavors, in this case, the indigenous naranjilla. At home, you can replace this with mandarins, clementines, or whatever you happen to have on hand.
3. Morocho de Leche
This warm, non-alcoholic drink is sure to be a favorite with children and adults alike. Supposedly originating from the Loja region, it is thick enough to eat with a spoon and can also be served for breakfast or dessert.
It is prepared much like rice pudding, though the rice is replaced by cracked corn. As this provides the characteristic flavor of morocho de leche, it is important to use the right kind of maize. If you don’t have a Latin market near you, hominy corn will do. In Ecuador, purple heritage varieties are popular.
Ecuadorian Christmas dinners are just as extensive as those in other countries. Serving a starter that can be prepared beforehand stills the worst of the hunger pangs and sets the stage for the rest of the feast.
4. Humitas (Steamed Corn Cakes Stuffed with Cheese)
Eaten across the Andes region, these are often eaten for breakfast or with coffee. They’re a popular addition to any meal, even at Christmas time. In places like Loja, cooked pork or poultry is often added along with vegetables, in which case the resulting dish is usually called tamales.
Ideally, you buy the corn whole and grind it in your food processor, as in this recipe. You then use the same corn’s husks to wrap your humitas. Forming each humita in its leafy shell can be tricky, but is a fun way to get children involved in the kitchen preparations.
If you don’t have a large enough stovetop or stand-alone steamer, you can also try making your humitas in the oven.
5. Ceviche de Langostinos (Raw Pickled Langoustine)
Langoustines are something many people see only in overpriced restaurants. In the coastal regions of Ecuador, by contrast, they’re often sold in fresh seafood markets right on the beach for about $4 per pound.
We’d be fools not to take advantage of this, assuming that the Christmas tourists don’t get up at dawn and snap them all up first.
As with any ceviche (which can be made with nearly anything that lives in the ocean), the key is to keep the flavors simple and add only enough vegetables and cilantro to allow the seafood’s natural flavors to shine.
As long as the langoustines are fresh, soaking them in lime juice is all the cooking they require, as in this recipe. If you’re skittish about eating raw seafood, you can also blanch the langoustines by placing them in a colander once cleaned and pouring boiling water over them.
6. Aguacates Rellenos con Cangrejo (Avocados Stuffed with Crabmeat)
Ecuador is a huge producer of avocados. Several types are available, with the Hass variety commonly being exported. Costeños avocados, with their somewhat yellowish flesh, are somewhat less attractive and sometimes seem to go from green to overripe in mere minutes.
This recipe can easily be adapted to work with shrimp or any other kind of seafood. Note that the crab sticks sold frozen in supermarkets are actually flavored white fish. Canned crab meat is significantly more expensive, while extracting it from whole crabs takes some patience, but the result is certainly worth it.
Platos Fuertes (Main Courses)
Between all the laughter and conversation, it’s time to pile on some serious calories before any New Year’s resolutions go into effect. Depending on the size of the gathering, many families prepare several main courses and serve dinner buffet style.
Many Ecuadorians have embraced roast turkey as a newer Christmas tradition. In fact, since relatively few families own ovens, you can pay someone to cook one for you ahead of the 25th.
These would not look unfamiliar on a North American dinner table, though the flavors in the stuffing and condiments tend to have a bit of a Latin slant.
7. Hornado de Pernil (Oven-baked Pork Leg)
This dish, reportedly at least 400 years old, is a staple around Christmas in the port city of Guayaquil. The genuine article is baked for 16 hours in a clay oven, though most restaurants and home cooks today take a minor shortcut or two.
This recipe, for instance, can be prepared in about 6 hours. The pork leg should still be marinated at least overnight, though, with three days or so not being unusual – this is one step you should not skimp on.
The meat is often accompanied by a sauce called agrio (sour) for a touch of freshness. Agrio is made with citrus, onion, tomato, and flavorings.
8. Gallina al Estilo Criollo (Creole-style Chicken)
Lago Agrio is a somewhat unlovely town dominated by the petroleum industry yet surrounded by immense natural beauty. Since it’s located in the Oriente region, east of the Sierra and close to the Amazon, its cuisine has been molded by some influences not necessarily found in other parts of Ecuador.
Its traditional Christmas dish is pork or chicken prepared in a variety of ways: fried, smoked, or stewed.
Creole-style seco de pollo (chicken stew) is typically made with beer or chicha, citrus juice, and a variety of seasonings including achiote. Achiote is a spice that grows wild in the area around Lago Agrio and adds both a unique flavor and a rich red hue to any dish.
9. Mariscos al Ajillo (Seafood in Garlic Sauce)
Eating seafood at Christmas may seem a little strange to turkey-or-bust traditionalists. But if you live in a province such as Manabí, where fishing is a major industry then why not?
A lot of fish and other seafood are caught from tiny fiberglass boats that are kept from capsizing mainly throuh faith and willpower, so there’s no reason to get your ingredients at the supermarket either.
This recipe, made with white wine, cream, and garlic, is for shrimp but can easily be adapted to other kinds of seafood. In Esmeraldas province further north, another Christmas favorite is shrimp, clams, and/or squid cooked in a coconut sauce (called an encocado) and served with rice over a fillet of fish, either dorado or cherna.
Acompañamientos (Side Dishes)
An array of side dishes provides variety, helps to fill up your guests, and can be a way to sneak a little extra nutrition into your family’s diet. The following are welcome additions to any Ecuadorian table at Christmastime.
10. Arroz Navideño (Christmas Rice)
No family meal in Ecuador is considered complete without rice. Somewhat ironically, their rice isn’t very good and is usually served plain.
At Christmas, there is at least some attempt to jazz it up. No two households, however, can seem to agree on exactly what arroz navideño really consists of.
Some cook it with coconut milk, others combine it with sweetcorn and cheese, a few believe that adding peanuts, raisins, and garlic is the best way to make it special, and still other cooks like to mix in basil sauce and nuts.
The moral of the story is that, if you plan to serve an Ecuadorian feast this Christmas, just do whatever you like with rice and call it arroz navideño.
11. Llapingachos (Potato Flapjacks)
The simplicity of this dish from Ambato belies its versatility and tastiness. Simply shape mashed potatoes into rounds, stuff them with cheese, and pan-fry until golden.
Llapingachos can be served topped with sliced onion and tomato, fried eggs, or peanut sauce, or as part of a hearty Christmas dinner. Here is a description of how to prepare them as the basis of a light lunch.
12. Pastel de Choclo con Queso (Cornbread with Cheese)
This dish is very similar to the humitas described above but is baked instead of steamed. It’s also a lot less work, which comes in handy when you need to feed a crowd on Christmas day. It works well for soaking up any excess sauce from dishes such as seco de pollo.
Using fresh corn off the cob rather than canned or frozen is definitely recommended. It’s up to you, though, whether you want to distribute the cheese evenly through the batter as in this recipe or add it in one or two layers.
Once your guests are loosening their belts and it’s time to wrap things up, the sweets come out. To mangle a saying, last impressions matter, and so does enjoying the last course of an excellent meal.
13. Pristiños (Fried Pastry Rings)
Instantly recognizable due to their distinctive ring shape, this Christmas dessert from Quito has been known to provoke instant, urgent hunger in any Ecuadorian child who sees them.
Aside from the deep-frying part, they’re also very easy to make in large batches. In terms of taste, the important part is the syrup they’re drizzled with before serving: honey and miel de panela are both good choices.
Buñuelos are very similar to pristiños. Their dough is made with yeast rather than baking powder, though, and they aren’t formed into the same shape, which represents a crown in the case of pristiños.
14. Pan de Pascua (Fruitcake)
Typically eaten around both Easter and Christmas, the main difference between pan de Pascua and the fruitcakes you may be used to is that the former isn’t nearly as dense.
You won’t, for instance, shatter a plate by putting a portion of pan de Pascua down too fast. The Ecuadorian recipe is derived from Italian panettone.
Pan de Pascua is also a popular Christmas dessert in other Latin American countries like Chile.
15. Bizcocho Manabita
This spongecake-like dish is wildly popular around Christmas, especially in Manabí province. The basic recipe is pretty straightforward, allowing for plenty of variation, like in this version, which tosses a cup of booze into the batter.
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Not many people come to Ecuador specifically to experience its gastronomy; extreme sports and a remarkable range of well-preserved ecosystems are more usual reasons. An unprepared tourist may well find Ecuadorian food a little dull, as everyday food generally is.
If you do a little research beforehand, however, and learn something about the specialties of each region, you will probably be pleasantly surprised. It’s a true shame to visit a country without experiencing the edible part of its culture – so, if you should find yourself in Ecuador, forget about hamburgers for a while and try out some of our more memorable, postcard-worthy dishes.
Related: Most Popular Ecuadorian Desserts
Related: Popular Ecuadorian Fruits