Top 25 Foods of Ecuador: From the Beach to the Amazon
Even by Latin American standards, Ecuadorian cuisine is intriguing and very, very varied. The diverse climates found in this relatively small country has led to each region developing a unique approach to food.
Exploring Ecuadorian Cuisine: 25 of Its Most Famous Dishes
In Quito, at 2,850 m (9,350 ft) above sea level, coca leaves are perfectly legal (though refined cocaine certainly is not); coca tea is a common antidote to altitude sickness.
On the coast, much of the seafood consumed was still frolicking in the ocean 24 hours earlier, while in the Oriente region, worm kebabs are considered a delicacy.
The first thing to understand about Ecuadorian food, as you read through the following list of some of its most famous dishes, is that it’s much less homogenous than (say) German cuisine. The Italian food landscape makes for a much better comparison: you can find polenta in Palermo and sea urchin pasta in Milan, but that isn’t what restaurants in those respective cities specialize in.
Likewise, food in Ecuador tends to be based on what ingredients are farmed or otherwise harvested in the immediate vicinity; some dishes are strongly associated with only one of the country’s 24 provinces or even a single canton.
This emphasis on sourcing food from nearby has another result that will leave denizens of some other parts of the world green with envy: most fresh produce really is fresh, as well as incredibly cheap (much of what you see in your own local supermarket will have been in storage or transit for weeks or even months).
Most fresh produce really is fresh, as well as incredibly cheap
At farmer’s markets, found in towns of all sizes, you can often pick up two pineapples, three or four pounds of tomatoes, or 40 limes for only a dollar. Getting in your recommended daily five portions of fruit and vegetables, frequently in the form of side dishes or soup, is therefore not much of an issue.
Finally, understanding Ecuadorian cuisine may challenge your own outlook on food. Though impressively modern in some ways, Ecuador retains strong ties to the traditions of the past. You won’t have any trouble finding Italian, Chinese, Lebanese, and various other international restaurants in most cities, often operated by immigrants from those countries. Fusion food, however, is rare, as is any major departure from well-known and dearly loved classic Ecuadorian recipes.
Most chefs stick to what they know; if there’s both a complicated and a simple way to achieve the same result, the straightforward, tried-and-true technique is preferred; and European, Asian, and North American-style dishes are seen as occasional treats, not something to be eaten every day.
Note that most of the recipes you’ll find in the links are the Google Translate version of Spanish originals. Gringos’ descriptions of traditional Ecuadorian cuisine often skip over the finer points of how it should be prepared; so having to puzzle out the occasional awkward phrase is a small price to pay for authenticity. If anything doesn’t make sense, SpanishDict.com should be able to throw some light on the matter.
Ecuadorian Spanish has perhaps a dozen different words for soup, each describing a particular way of preparing it. In each case, though, the principle remains the same: don’t fancify things to oblivion, take care to balance your flavors, and let the ingredients speak for themselves.
No meal is seen as really complete unless it comes with a generous portion of rice and a hearty bowlful of soup.
1. Caldo de Gallina Criolla (Creole Chicken Soup)
Many households in Ecuador keep chickens. They’re not typically coddled all that much: being a local variety, they’re very resistant to disease and pests and used to searching for much of their own food. When on a plate, they can be recognized by the firmer flesh reflecting their active lifestyle.
As a result, this soup has to be cooked for quite a while unless you get your chicken from the supermarket. Like coq au vin, another time-consuming recipe meant to turn a tough old rooster into a delicacy, you end up with a truly rich flavor even though this dish is very simple. It’s typically served as whole chicken pieces in vegetable broth, meaning that the bones, too, add a savoriness of their own.
2. Viche de Pescado (Fish Soup)
This dish originated in the seaside province of Manabí, as did Panama hats (though that’s another story and has little to do with cuisine). Its most original feature is the ground peanut seasoning, which not only gives this soup a creamy texture but goes surprisingly well with fish, shrimp, and other seafood.
In addition, whole ears of corn are sliced into wheels and their crunchiness is complemented by chewy plantain slices as well as an assortment of vegetables. Like many Ecuadorian soups, this recipe is deceptively simple and can be deviated from at will – but you will not achieve the same flavor as a cook who’s been making it for years.
3. Locro de Papa (Potato Soup)
Peanuts in soup may strike you as a weird idea, so how about potato and cheese? I should probably mention that cheese in Ecuador, especially queso fresco (unaged cheese), is quite different from what you’re probably used to: porous, tangy, and not hugely flavorful.
In combination with potato, it becomes an extremely hearty soup that’s popular in the colder parts of the Sierra mountains. Other flavorings include cilantro and achiote: a spice native to South America that adds both color and flavor. Locro de papa, though not served cold, is typically garnished with slices of avocado and – almost always – chili or hot sauce.
4. Encebollado (Fish Soup)
Encebollado means “with onions”. As it turns out, this is one of the best ways to prepare fresh tuna or albacore. Interestingly, encebollado, though very much on the savory side, is a common breakfast dish as it’s supposed to be a hangover cure.
Aside from a careful balance of flavor between cilantro, seafood, chili (a small amount!), cumin, and other seasonings, what makes this soup special is its garnish: tomatoes and red onions sliced very thinly and marinated in lime juice – also called curtido de tomate y cebolla and a handy way to rescue all kinds of dishes from boredom.
Easter is one of the most important holidays in largely Catholic Ecuador. It’s also the only time of year during which fanesca is served. This rich soup takes quite a while to prepare and is all about celebrating with family.
Its list of ingredients will challenge most pantries: dried cod, beans, cream, cheese, hardboiled eggs, peanuts, squash, rice, corn, onions, and various aromatics all go into a perfect fanesca. This may seem intimidating, but the recipe really isn’t that hard to follow, though the amount of work needed makes it worth preparing this stew in bulk.
Ecuadorian Seafood Dishes
When it comes to the ocean’s bounty, there’s very little that can go wrong as long as it’s fresh. Contrariwise, no help from man can rescue seafood that’s past its prime. Ecuadorians know this well: in addition to major industries focusing on the export of tuna and shrimp, many tables are supplied by fishermen who brave the ocean on tiny fiberglass boats.
In coastal towns, you’ll find their wares on sale the next morning at the market for way less than they’d cost in a supermarket freezer.
6. Ecuadorian Ceviche (Raw Pickled Seafood)
If you thought sushi was the only way to enjoy raw fish, you’ve obviously never tried this dish. Traditionally, ceviche is made only with seafood (clams, shrimp, squid, fish, or any combination of these), salt, and lime juice. Rather than using heat for the cooking, the acid in the limes causes a similar chemical reaction while allowing more of the seafood’s natural flavor to shine through.
In modern times, there’s room for much greater variation in ceviche recipes, including this one featuring a vegetable garnish and orange juice. Don’t, however, confuse Ecuadorian ceviche with the Peruvian or Mexican versions: it’s more like a soup than a salad, is served with chifles (thinly sliced plantain chips) instead of tortillas or corn kernels, and is not accompanied with chili of any kind.
Ecuadorians generally don’t like spicy food, and ceviche is good enough as it is.
One thing you should be aware of: ceviche is made with seafood that’s no more than a couple of hours old and is generally served only in the morning – once the ingredients, which were caught the previous night, run out, the restaurant shuts down.
If you’re not totally sure of your seafood’s freshness, you can blanch it for safety, as many Ecuadorians do.
7. Chicharrón de Pescado (Deep Fried Fish Pieces)
Popular among finicky children and perfect for sharing among several people, chicharron means “curly” and refers to the shape the chunks of fish take on as they cook. The dish can also be prepared using pork.
As long as you don’t mind the calories, this dish is very simple to make. Just take care with the breading, which often uses corn flour, breadcrumbs, and wheat flour all together for the perfect crispy texture.
This dish is typically served with lime wedges, salad, and patacones: plantain circles that are fried, bashed with a special tool to increase their surface area, and then fried again for maximum crunch.
8. Arroz Marinero (Sailor’s Rice)
Though yuca (cassava root), plantain, and potatoes are all popular, rice remains the staple starch in Ecuador. Arroz marinero is similar in concept to paella, but with a couple of major differences: you don’t need a special wok-like pan to prepare it, saffron is replaced with achiote, there’s no crispy crust on the bottom, and chicken and chorizo typically don’t make it into the arroz marinero recipe.
Although this is a really special dish, there’s really very little involved in preparing it: as long as the rice and the seafood aren’t overcooked, it will be fine.
9. Encocado de Pescado (Fish in Coconut Sauce)
Coconut trees practically grow wild in much of Ecuador; I actually have one in my garden. The easiest way to enjoy this highly nutritious food is simply to chill them and lop the top off with a machete – numerous sidewalk stalls sell nothing but coco helado.
If you want to go to a little more effort, though, some really great dishes are well within your grasp. My favorite coconut dish has to be encocado de pescado, a signature dish from Esmeraldas province. Though best prepared with Pacific sea bass, this recipe is amazingly tolerant of other types of seafood – even shellfish works well. Using fresh coconut in the sauce makes a noticeable difference, but canned will work too.
10. Trucha con Hierbas (Trout with Herbs)
Are river fish seafood? I’ll leave that question to the philosophers, but trout by any name is worth a mention when discussing Ecuador’s best foods. The clear, cold rivers of the highlands are perfect for fish farming, making trout and tilapia very common.
Both are delectable simply panfried with butter, but this recipe will find a special place in your heart. Crispy-skinned trout, a careful blend of herbs, and a sauce you make right in the pan will make you nostalgic for Papallacta, even if you’ve never been there.
Ecuadorian Meat Dishes
Compared to Europeans and North Americans, most Ecuadorians eat red meat relatively sparingly, preferring to get their protein from other sources.
This may be one reason for this developing nation’s high life expectancy: at 77 years, it’s ahead of Argentina, Malaysia, and most Arab and Eastern European countries (the United States, in case you were wondering, clocks in at 79 years).
If you’re not going to eat a lot of meat, you may as well make every morsel count: Ecuadorian meat dishes aren’t all that complicated, but tend to be pretty flavorful and satisfying.
11. Seco de Chivo (Goat Stew)
Somewhat confusingly, seco means both “dry” and “stew” in Ecuadorian Spanish, presumably due to how much liquid is allowed to boil off from a traditional, slow-braised stew. What makes this dish special is the way the meat (which may also be lamb) is marinated in chicha: an alcoholic beverage made by chewing and spitting out corn kernels.
The enzymes in human saliva start the fermentation process, but you may be glad to know that most restaurants use bottled beer instead.
Apart from cooking and marinating the meat for a long time, the secret to this dish is not to go easy on the aromatics, including (optionally) fruit juice. Goat and lamb have powerful flavors and can stand a little spice.
12. Cuy Asado (Roast Guinea Pig)
Fans of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series will probably remember the fictional Ankh-Morpork delicacy: fried-rat-onna-stick.
Well, in Ecuador, this is actually not only a real thing but a very well-liked one. Though the Inca empire occupied the country for only eight decades, and half of that in the north, this is one part of their culture that has endured through the centuries.
Once you get past the fact that you’re eating a rodent, served whole, you’ll find it’s actually incredibly tasty. The greatest drawback of this dish is that it’s very expensive and doesn’t contain much meat, which you basically have to suck and nibble off the bones.
13. Churrasco (Steak, Sort Of)
Cattle in Ecuador tend to be free-range rather than penned, corn-fed, antibiotic-saturated, hormonally fattened cattle. This makes their meat tastier and almost certainly better for you. On the other hand, a steak cut from one does require some chewing.
The solution is to butcher select parts of the animal into relatively thin cutlets, which differentiates Ecuadorian churrasco from those served in countries with larger beef industries. Don’t expect to order this medium-rare, but the flavor is generally not disappointing thanks to a potent dry rub.
Once cooked on a parrilla (charcoal grill) or flat top, perhaps with a basting sauce, it makes for a substantial lunch when accompanied by salad, fried eggs, rice, French fries, and perhaps a bean dish.
14. Tonga de Gallina (Chicken Wrapped in Plantain Leaves)
Tonga can take quite a while to prepare: you have to cook rice, prepare a sauce from peanuts, cook a chicken and vegetable stew separately, and only then assemble the whole package and toss it in the steamer or oven.
In times past, this was of a design that hadn’t changed over the previous centuries: basically a large clay pot sunk into the soil and covered with a lid of some kind. A fire is built on one side while the other is reserved for food.
Making a ton of tongas isn’t much harder than producing only a few. This has led to them becoming a fixture at social gatherings and family events, as well as a fairly popular take-away food. The idea of packaging a whole meal in a plantain leaf originated with agricultural workers who couldn’t return home for lunch. Once people realized they had a good thing going, this dish was no longer seen as food only fit for peasants.
15. Arroz con Menestra y Carne Asada (Rice with Menestra and Barbecue)
Although this kind of food is far from sophisticated, it remains a perennial favorite among Ecuadorians. It also lets us talk a little about menestra: a sauce made from vegetables and either beans or lentils. This is low in calories and high in nutrients, as well as a staple every Ecuadorian knows and loves.
This sauce is not especially flavorful. It’s always inoffensive, though, whatever it’s served with, and has a texture that goes particularly well with rice.
Slow food is king in Ecuador; almuerzo (lunch) is a sacred hour best spent around a table with family. Pizza, hamburgers, French fries, and similar junk tends to be reserved for special occasions or days when time is short. Even so, there are plenty of sidewalk vendors and informal eateries around who offer a number of tastier, healthier options. These are generally not affiliated with any franchise and are arguably the better for it.
16. Empanadas (Filled Pastry Pockets)
A great option for any occasion from breakfast to midnight snack, these little treats can contain anything from a meat to a sweet filling. They offer a lot of variety in other ways, too: they can be pan- or deep-fried or baked, while the dough is often made with mashed plantain or yuca.
If you don’t feel like devoting an entire morning to making a batch, you can always buy the discs pre-made, as well as a special tool to shape and seal them. Preparing them from scratch is always more satisfying, though, including this traditional recipe for cheesy empanadas sprinkled with sugar.
17. Corviche (Fish Courgettes)
Corvina (sea bass) might not be the single tastiest thing to ever come out of the ocean, but it’s definitely a strong contender for the title. Combine it with plantain, the vegetable with a thousand and one uses, and you get corviche.
Flavored with finely chopped onion, peanuts, cilantro, and whatever else you can think of, these are deep-fried and taste their best when still piping hot. Make sure to ask what you’re getting when you visit one of the many street stalls that serve these, though: many cooks use the cheaper tuna as a filling, which isn’t nearly as delicious.
18. Muchines de Yuca (Cassava Balls)
Due to its low cost and versatility, cassava root is very popular in Ecuador. You can put it in soup, turn it into a tortilla, prepare it just like French fries, or bake it like bread. In the latter case, you may as well spice it up with either a sweet or savory filling, which is exactly what muchines are.
Filling the dough with cheese and drizzling it with honey is one good option, stuffing it with ground beef is another.
19. Humitas (Steamed Corn)
Not very different from Mexican tamales, humitas are creamy maize pastries steamed in the leaves from their own cobs. Though not too sweet, they go very well with coffee or as a light snack.
Preparing humitas requires a fairly large amount of work, but they freeze well can can be stored in the fridge. To reheat them, just put them in the oven or even the microwave.
20. Torta de Verde (Plantain Pie)
Plantains are eaten both when green and once they’ve ripened, at which point they’re slightly acidic and sweet. In either state, they can be grated or boiled and mashed to create a dough that can be used for various purposes.
One of the best dishes prepared in this way is a tortilla containing fish, sausage or cheese, plus spices and vegetables for flavor. Even if you’re not especially confident in the kitchen, there’s very little that can go wrong with this recipe. It’s up to you whether you want to create individual, bite-sized portions or a larger pie.
Generally, you’ll pan-fry them in the first case and bake a larger, thicker pie in the oven on a medium heat.
Desserts and Sweets
Confectionery styles from abroad have made plenty of inroads in Ecuador, but most people living here still have a soft spot for the old-fashioned favorites, prepared just like grandma used to make. Even if these dishes don’t interest you, there is always fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth – including some that you’ve probably never heard of.
21. Colada Morada (Corn and Fruit Tea)
This sweet drink has plenty of history behind it: it actually predates Spanish colonists arriving in Ecuador. Back then, it had religious symbolism; even today, it’s traditionally drunk on All Soul’s Day (November 2nd).
You will have some difficulty finding all the ingredients outside Latin America. Specifically, you’ll need purple corn, though some recipes use cornstarch instead to thicken the liquid and a variety of spices, herbs, and fruit for color and flavor. If you want to get the full experience of celebrating the day of the dead, you can also bake guaguas de pan: sweet breads in the form of dolls.
22. Morocho (Milk Cereal)
A little like rice pudding, morocho uses broken brown corn instead of rice and has a texture similar to a milkshake. The special corn, of course, provides this dish’s principal flavor and combines with cloves, cinnamon, raisins, and panela (whole unrefined sugar).
Also like rice pudding, you have to cook it for an incredibly long time in addition to soaking the corn. Never fear, though: there are plenty of stalls and restaurants in Ecuador that will be happy to serve you a portion.
23. Rompope (Eggnog)
Everybody loves eggnog. In Ecuador, it’s less of a seasonal thing and is sold in bottled form year-round.
Traditionally, it’s made with either rum, brandy, or aguardiente. The latter type of liquor is not exceptionally tasty – it’s basically gasoline – so take care.
24. Membrillo (Quince Paste)
Quince isn’t very sweet (at least, not in terms of Ecuadorian desserts), but it does have a unique flavor. Preparing a jam from it takes a good long time and you have to pay attention when you do, but at least it stores well. Many people like to pair it with a bit of cheese for dessert, or use it as an ingredient in cookies.
25. Torta de Higo (Fig Cake)
Among numerous other fruits, figs are greatly loved in the Andes region. They’re mostly marinated and cooked in syrup, as the temperature makes it difficult for them to ripen completely. Another way to take advantage of their natural sweetness and flavor is to include them in a cake, examples of which you’ll find in numerous pastelerias (pastry shops).
This recipe can be as simple or as complicated as you wish. You will find that using ingredients like nuts, orange marmalade, and spices do lead to a better result, though, so putting in the time will be worth your while.
Ecuador is most definitely a tourist’s paradise. You can have world-class tropical kitesurfing and birdwatching experiences one day, climb a snow-covered mountain or active volcano the next, return to Quito to admire centuries-old architecture and artwork before partying the night away, then round out the week with a guided tour of parts of the Upper Amazon that are only accessible by canoe.
And in between all of that, you now know that you can enjoy some truly unique tastes (though if you really have to, there are KFCs and McDonald’s around).
In case you’re more of an armchair traveler, you can still try out some of these dishes even if there isn’t an Ecuadorian restaurant in your neck of the woods. Though finding ingredients such as plantains and panela may be challenging, it isn’t hard to replicate most of these dishes. This recipe book strikes a good balance between authenticity and simplicity. In addition, it’s bilingual, which may prevent you from ordering sopa de mondongo (tripe soup) by accident should you visit.