The markets in Ecuador have a special pan-seasonal range of products because we are at the equator, and there is an altitude for every growing zone. Tropical fruits and veges come up from the lowlands, and beautiful sea food from the shores just 150 km away. Being high in the mountains, root vegetables, fresh herbs and temperate climate flowers overflow the stalls, interspersed with more exotic flaura I don’t recognize. Fruits also span the climate zones, with mangoes, bananas and fruits I don’t recognize nestled alongside pears and berries.
But the queen produce of the markets is potatoes. There are thousands of varieties of potatoes in the Andes, and only a fraction make it to the market. The other day I bought some tiny white finger potatoes that were speckled with rosy red. After I cleaned them, I cut them in half, and the kitchen was filled with fragrance! These little tater tots smelled like pure clean earth. Cooking them filled the house with this warm perfume. They never became soft, retaining just a light crunch after plenty of cooking. They tasted as earthy as they smelled. What marvels!
Other potatoes have different qualities, of course, and a soup may contain 3 or 4 varieties. A yellowish medium sized potato dissolves and gives body, and can be used to thicken any number of dishes. The rosy crunchy papas give texture and color (not to mention aroma!). Another type gives flavor. I like the tiny red ones for their taste.
Onions also come in a variety of colors and flavors, and stages of maturity. I love the little ones just forming bulbs for salads. My housemate and I disagreed on which to use yesterday for guacamole-she wanted red, but I went for the sweeter taste of white. She doesn’t like chiles in her guacamole, so the red adds color and a bit of sharpness. I like chiles, and there is a little round red one here with black seeds that gives great color and bite. We ended up with 2 guacamoles.
Speaking of chiles, there is a very small variety here, and only a couple of fiery ones. Ecuadorians don’t cook spicy hot food, but will serve a aji (chili) sauce at the table. It isn’t very hot, and it has a soft sweet balance with the use of slivered onions and tamarillo (tree tomato). I want to work on making my own aji to taste to serve with tamales.
Throughout Latin America I have encountered a generous variety of tamales. Even the leaves they are cooked in vary. In Mexico and New Mexico, corn husks are generally used, though in the more tropical regions of Mexico you can find banana leaves wrapped firmly around the corn masa. In Ecuador, I have been told the leaf is from the haliconia, but at a market yesterday the vendor said the leaves were from something else. The filling have likewise varied. I am especially fond of blue corn tamales found in New Mexico and Mexico, but mostly one finds yellow or white corn. The masa (flour) and cooking techniques vary too, resulting in tamales that are sometimes smooth and light as a feather, or dense with some texture. Finally, tamales can be filled with everything from a little farmer’s cheese to a half of a chicken. I encountered the later in restaurants in Colombia. Big pieces, bone in, of chicken with potatoes and vegetables wrapped in huge banana leaves, each one a plate-sized breakfast. I plan to experiment with tamales, as they seem infinitely versatile.
When I went to the Saturday market here in Cuenca, I saw large bouquets of herbs. I recognized amaranth and a couple of others, but most were a mystery. Yesterday at the country market we asked and were told they were all medicinal. I’ve read that the Andean people know the varieties and uses of all the growing things for your health.
Markets are where you learn the most about people and culture, I think. At a village market yesterday we came across what is probably the most well-known Ecuadorian food-Cuy. Most people in the US and Europe know cuy as Guinea pig, and as a small big-eyed pet scampering in a cage. Here it is much bigger and not as cute, at all. Cuy is traditionally staple form of protein in the Andes. I expected to see it more often in the markets and streets, but the first time I saw it in any quantity was in this village. I’m pretty much an omnivore, but when I saw the preparation and roasting of it, I was utterly turned off. I never had one as a pet, so I don’t imagine it with a charming face. This is not the reason for my distaste. In fact, the cuy on the grill have truly evil faces. I think I would be afraid to set into one.
The other creepy food we encountered in another village was huge grubs, the sort that are the center of an eating challenge on the Survivor television show. I think they are eaten alive, but they may also be cooked on the grill. They are an Amazonia food found in the base of a palm tree. I haven’t gotten past my aversion to eating insects, though I rationally know it is a good idea in terms of nutrition and the environment. But if I imagine a grill of cuy and grubs when tempted by some high calorie treat, I think I will be saved from indulgence. I have posted the pictures at the end of this post with a “trigger warning,” (Ha!) so you can decide if you wish to see them.
Many times yesterday I had older Ecuadorian men, in suit jackets and brimmed hats, greet me with a big grin, a handshake, and probably every English word they knew. We clearly were not seen as interlopers. It was easy to share a laugh with the women selling their goods (when looking for mutton I sent a half dozen women into hysterics when mimicked a sheep, baaaaaa). Sometimes we were directly laughed at, as soon as we turned our backs, and admittedly we were a sight. Marcel is quite tall and lean, with a bald head, I am very tall by comparison to the local women, and with silver braids and my hat, a bit confusing. Veronique is shorter, but quite lean and wiry, with very short hair and a hat. Many times we were stared at, and if they had cameras, I am sure we would have been subjects for their own pictures of exoticism.
Trigger Warning: Gross Food Ahead