By Paulina Vaca
A great confluence of indigenous, Spanish, and African traditions, Ecuadorian cuisine is a true melting pot of flavors that has managed, in large part, to remain undiscovered.
From its perch high in the Andes and dead-on the Equator (Ecuador is Spanish for Equator), Quito represents one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, offering up an abundance of intriguing fruits, vegetables, and spices.
Here are seven things to know about the Ecuadorian capital city’s unique culinary offerings:
1. Quito is juice heaven.
Freshly squeezed juices or batidos (juices “shaken” with milk) made from the region’s unique produce can be found all over the city. One of my favorites is the white and frothy juice of the taxo, or banana passionfruit, which comes with a bite.
For a breakfast jolt, Ecuadorians prefer the pungent, coral-colored tamarillo, or tree tomato, but my go-to is the mora de castilla. This bright fuchsia fruit, a type of blackberry, occupies a favored spot in Quitenian kitchens. Tart and terrifically tangy, the juice of the mora, sweetened with sugary panela, tastes great—and feels like shooting stars on the tongue.
2. For true Ecuadorian flavors, go to an open market.
Mercado de Santa Clara is a short walk from tourist-saturated Amazonas Street in the city’s Mariscal district. Locals head here for gallon-sized jugs of mora, taxo, and naranjilla juice, roasted pigs on a slab, and deep-fried whole sea bass.
And there is, always, fritada, Ecuador’s iconic national dish. Fritada means fried—and that’s what you get. Pork fried in fist-sized chunks, sliced plantains, corn kernels fried whole. It’s an exuberant, salty, decadent snack, served on a bed of fat white hominy. Whatever variety you choose, it will be cheap—about $4 USD.
3. Every region in Ecuador has its favorite tamal.
Pale, petite, and wrapped in corn husks, the humita is the most common tamal in Quito. It’s made simply, with masa (cornmeal dough), a dash of lard, and cheese.
Quitenians may eat humitas for an everyday meal, but when they celebrate or get together for coffee, they do it with a quimbolito. This white fluffy desert tamal is a steamed corn cake wrapped in dark green achira leaves and can be accented by raisins or rich chocolate. The airy cake rises as it bakes, puffing up like a bird’s belly.
If you’re on the hunt for either of these popular treats, you won’t have to look far—humitas and quimbolitos can be found in street stands all over the city.
4. Ecuadorian seviche will surprise your palate.
With ingredients like red onions, orange juice, shrimp, ketchup, and cilantro, Ecuadorian seviche is a relaxed, playful version of South America’s beloved dish.
The sour and the crunch will slap the jet lag out of you, and it’s a legendary cure for a chuchaqui, the Quichuan word for hangover.
Though seviche is sold in mega conglomerate franchises throughout Ecuador, some of Quito’s best offerings can be found in shacks. The famous Los sebiches de la Rumiñahui serves up the most traditional variety, citrus-cured shrimp—with a pinch of mustard.
5. Quito’s Centro Historico is a special place for traditional sweets.
Early morning, the warm smells of cinnamon and sugar waft through the narrow cobblestone streets of the Quito’s UNESCO-protected colonial center, Centro Historico.
Along these paths, you’ll find vendors stirring immense vats of nuts and corn in bubbling caramel. Dulce de higos—glistening figs bathed in molasses-like panela—simmer alongside.
The figs, their skins a deep ebony, are presented piping hot to customers with a simple slice of cheese.
6. Most Quitenians have soup for lunch, every day.
The traditional soup Quitenians eat is called locro. A salve in the city’s mountain chill, locro starts as a boil of Andean potatoes, milk, sofrito vegetable base, and cheese, but there are endless variations.
In the town of Guayllabamba, about an hour’s drive to the northeast of Quito, is where you can find some of the freshest soups in the sierra. El Tipico Locro serves the most authentic and traditional of all locros, yahuarlocro.
Yahuar means blood in Quichuan, and the soup certainly has that. It’s boiled with the stomach and intestines of a lamb, as well as herbs and potatoes. A heaping bowl of the lamb’s blood—fried—is served on the side. Again, not for everyone, but a true taste of Ecuador.
7. It’s true—in Quito, guinea pig is on the menu!
Guinea pig isn’t eaten every day, or by everyone in the Ecuadorian Sierra. However, the rodent, called cuy, is still revered by many and serves as a centerpiece at special celebrations.
And it tastes great. The smooth, rich meat is much more complex than chicken or pork. In Quito, cuy is traditionally served over potatoes, and sometimes with a lively egg and onion sauce.
Paulina Vaca is a researcher at National Geographic.