Most Popular Fruits of Ecuador
If you think fruit is boring, that may well be because there’s just too much of the same thing going around. There are over 7,000 varieties of apples, for instance; all the bananas you’ll see in the supermarket are essentially clones, and – once your fresh produce has traveled upwards of a thousand miles from where it was grown – fruit can hardly help but taste bland.
In Ecuador, by contrast, people still get excited about fruit. Non-regional and imported types are available, but the majority of fruit is local and sold in the nearest town large enough to have a market. Consumers don’t insist on aesthetic perfection; we have flowers for that purpose.
Most meals are accompanied not just by juice, but freshly squeezed fruit juice. Strong, fresh, natural flavors are provided by Mother Nature rather than coming from a can or bottle.
One consequence of all of this is that heirloom and indigenous Ecuadorian fruits continue to be cultivated and enjoyed. In fact, as residents of other regions strive to broaden their palates or become more health-conscious, many types are becoming available in Europe and North America.
Here are a few varieties of Ecuadorian fruit to keep an eye out for, as well as ways you can try using them.
1. Maracuyá (Passion Fruit)
Maracuyá is what granadilla wants to be when it grows up. Note, however, that maracuyá is just Spanish for passion fruit and can refer to any of several distinct species.
In Ecuador, the most popular kind of maracuyá has a thick, waxy skin that turns bright yellow when ripe. (Passiflora edulis quicornac, for the truly dedicated gardeners out there.) Given enough rainfall, these climbing vines grow like weeds and produce abundantly. Maracuyá are some of the cheapest fruit around.
In taste, maracuyás are much more acidic and flavorful than the granadillas you’re probably used to. The raw juice has to be sweetened and diluted with an approximately equal amount of water to be drinkable. Maracuyá’s fresh, zesty flavor is also a welcome addition to homemade ice cream, jams, syrups, mousses, and various kinds of desserts.
2. Pitahaya (Dragon Fruit)
Dragon fruit comes in two basic cultivars: red and yellow. The red is prettier (or at least weirder-looking), but yellow pitahaya are a little sweeter and somewhat more common in Ecuador. Though associated with the humid Amazonian provinces, the pitahaya plant is actually a kind of succulent.
It’s pretty likely that you’ve seen these for sale in your neighborhood, though the prices charged abroad can be sobering. Outside Latin America, pitahayas are highly prized, especially in Asian communities, for the long list of diseases they supposedly prevent or cure.
Though this fruit can be prepared in a variety of ways, my preference is just to slice them in half and use the skin as a bowl. The flesh is extremely delicate in texture and flavor. You may find it somewhat reminiscent of kiwi fruit, though less tart and with similarly small seeds distributed evenly throughout.
3. Tomate de Árbol
Botanically speaking, “tree tomatoes” (also called tamarillos) have no relationship to regular tomatoes. Oblong in shape, they range in color from bright orange to deep red.
A bloody mary made with tomates de árbol would be interesting but probably not what you’d expect. Their sweet-sour flavor is complex and nothing at all like that of regular tomatoes.
Like tomatoes, however, tomates de árbol serve both sweet and savory purposes. They can be sliced thinly to give a salad an extra kick, turned into juice, dusted with sugar and eaten raw, tossed into stews for extra flavor, processed into jellies or desserts, or used as a base for chili sauce.
Though opinions vary, it’s usually best to discard the bitter peels – you can use the same procedure as for regular tomatoes.
4. Guanabana (Soursop)
The guanabana is Ecuador’s official national fruit, a fact nobody I know cares about at all. What’s far more important is that it’s simply awesome.
Despite its rather startling appearance (made all the more impressive by them often being over a foot long), this fruit has an incredibly gentle flavor, with a creaminess that belies its relative lack of calories.
The large seeds and hard, fibrous flesh can’t be eaten whole, so this fruit is typically liquidized and strained before being used in yogurts, cakes, cocktails, and any number of sweet dishes.
Guanabana is becoming an increasingly important Ecuadorian export as well as being cultivated abroad. This increase in popularity is partly due to this fruit being touted as a possible cure for cancer. Note that excessive consumption of guanabana does have some side effects, and that medical advice is best taken from actual doctors instead of the internet.
From the outside, naranjilla (also called lulo) actually looks more like a tomato than tomate de árbol, though it’s a lively orange rather than red. Though the name means “little orange”, it’s not technically a citrus fruit but its taste is certainly reminiscent of limes and mandarins.
It can be eaten raw with a little salt to bring out its flavors, though I personally find it a little sour on its own. Where it shines is in cocktails, homemade ice creams (a cottage industry practiced by many families), and as a flavoring in dishes such as seco de chivo.
It also makes a fantastic salad dressing and can be turned into juice. In Ecuador, this means that the whole fruit, minus the peel, is liquidized and then strained by hand through a sieve and optionally diluted with water. Retaining the pulp in this way is far healthier due to the fiber buffer preventing all that sugar from being absorbed immediately.
Grown mostly in the highlands, babaco is part of the papaya family but has a much stronger and more complex sweet-sour flavor, with more than a hint of citrus and pineapple. The interior is free of seeds and each fruit is typically over a foot in length.
Babacos are great on their own, as part of a fruit salad, or in milkshakes and smoothies (batidos). One interesting characteristic of this fruit is that it contains melatonin, the same hormone your body produces when getting ready for sleep. Babaco is therefore a natural cure for insomnia as well as a prophylactic against diabetes and numerous other conditions.
Also known as inga or the “ice cream bean”, this is nature’s ideal snack food. Each pod is up to about half a meter long and filled with seeds covered with airy, fibrous flesh.
The seeds themselves are bitter and only marginally edible without being toasted or boiled. The surrounding flesh has a subtle, slightly sweet flavor not unreminiscent of vanilla. Though normally eaten raw, it can also be scraped off and used as an ingredient in cakes.
Guaba trees are often cultivated not for the sake of their fruit but to provide shade to cacao or coffee trees. Various parts of the plant – fruit, seeds, pods, bark, and roots – also play prominent roles in traditional Ecuadorian medicine.
8. Achotillo (Rambután)
Also called rambután, this fruit is related to lychees and also resemble the indigenous spice achiote. Like lychees, the flesh is firm, creamy, and quite sweet with a shadow of tartness.
Achotillo is actually an ancient transplant from Malaysia and not native to South America. Still, these days it grows wild in the Oriente region and makes for a convenient, free snack if you’re ambling along a sidewalk shaded by them.
Unfortunately, they don’t travel well and tend to be fairly expensive in other provinces. Though the spines are soft, separating the flesh from the shell and (poisonous) seeds is something of a hassle. Achotillo is therefore not used in the kitchen very often, though you can find recipes calling for it in cocktails, mousses, and preserves.
I’ve left many exotic Ecuadorian fruits out of this article. This is either because they’re localized in too small a region, somewhat similar to another one described here, or something you may already know.
You can, for example, find savory mangoes here that are eaten sliced and salted like French fries. Noni is Ecuador’s answer to the notorious durian fruit, though fortunately less pungent. Cacao fruit are actually delectable, but have such a short shelf life you’re unlikely to ever see them far from a farm.
Grosellas could even be called the sweeter tropical equivalent to olives…though it’s thoroughly unlikely that the average Italian will agree.
Obviously, you can’t even scratch the surface of what Ecuador’s fruits have to offer by reading about them. The only way to truly get to know them is to visit the country and head to one of the many local markets.