In a country roughly the size of the state of Nevada, Ecuador ensures the ingredients, dishes or flavors you crave are always within reach. Rice, potatoes, meat and fish will follow you wherever you go here, but so will new culinary surprises that rely on what’s locally available to the region. With every village or town you pass through, you’ll be endlessly delighted by new ingredients and new methods of preparation unique to the area.
The Andes, Amazon and Pacific coast are all to thank for the depth of ingredients featured on plates and in markets throughout the country, while Ecuador’s prominent indigenous cultures continue to leave their centuries-old mark on how those ingredients are put together.
In the Sierra, expect to dine on plenty of savory soups and protein-based dishes featuring potatoes, cheese, corn and avocados. The coast brings plantains, yuca, rice and coconut to the plate, and the Ecuadorian Amazon appears on menus through its tropical and exotic fruit juices, such as naranjilla, maracuyá (passion fruit) and mora.
From its Pacific sands to its snow-capped Andean peaks, the various Ecuadorian landscapes provide numerous culinary adventures for travelers to enjoy!
The Dining Experience in Ecuador
Beyond the cosmopolitan cities of Quito and Guayaquil, fine dining, innovative cuisine and international fare options are few and far between. The typical Ecuadorian dining experience outside of the big cities mostly involves rubbing elbows with locals over a menu del dia (a preset menu of the day). This Ecuadorian lunch and dinnertime institution includes a soup, main course (including meat) and a dessert.
Street markets and stalls are also commonplace in Ecuador for a quick grab-and-go meal or snack. Just be sure to follow the “locals rule.” If the place is flooded with locals, it’s probably safe to say it won’t wreak gastrointestinal havoc.
All in all, dining in Ecuador presents a unique opportunity for travelers to really get to know the cuisine of a culture through its locals-only establishments while also providing haute cuisine options in its bigger cities.
Typical Ecuadorian Dishes
No matter where you are in Ecuador, make sure to enjoy these quintessentially Ecuadorian delicacies:
· Locro de Papa
Locro de papa is a popular Ecuadorian potato soup and a good go-to dish on menus throughout Ecuador. Though it originated in Quito, the soup has taken on new identities and flavors from various regions. In the Andes, it’s traditionally made with potato, onion, garlic, cumin, achiote (annatto), milk, cheese and cilantro. On the coast, you’ll find locro with shrimp (langostinos) and crab (cangrejo), and in other parts of the country, you might come across versions with peanuts, choclo (corn) or lima beans incorporated.
Llapingachos are potato patties stuffed with cheese and made crispy on the griddle. You’ll often find them as a side dish on your plate when you order any of the typical Ecuadorian dishes. They’re also sometimes dressed up with salsa de mani (peanut sauce), a fried egg, tomato and onion, making for a unique and delicious breakfast!
· Seco de Chivo
Seco de chivo is a braised goat stew that’s traditionally consumed during festivals and other special occasions. Though you’ll likely find it on menus across Ecuador, the flavor will vary based on the beverage used to prepare it. The most traditional version is made with chicha, a fermented corn drink from the Andes. Other variations use beer or juice from the naranjilla fruit.
Naranjilla is a local fruit similar in appearance to an orange. Some describe the taste like a cross between rhubarb and lime. As it’s a seedy fruit, naranjillas are best enjoyed in juice form or cut in half and sprinkled with some salt before squeezing the juice into your mouth.
Like Peru’s version, Ecuadorian ceviche is typically made with fish or seafood that’s cooked in lime juice and served with red onions and cilantro. The difference between the two versions is Ecuadorian ceviche’s soupy consistency. In Ecuador, ceviche is served in the juices it was cooked or marinated in. Top yours off like a local by adding ketchup, mustard or hot sauce.
Backroads Pro Tip
If you’re vegetarian, look for the very popular vegetarian-style ceviche called “cevichocho,” which is made from a bean called chocho (lupini bean). It’s sometimes also called “ceviche serrano” (highland ceviche) because it doesn’t rely on seafood like the coastal ceviche.
Regional Foods and Specialties
Ecuador’s relatively small size means any of the country’s regional specialties can be enjoyed throughout the country without losing their freshness. This even extends to the coast’s delectable seafood plates on a menu in the high Andes. However, there are a few region-specific specialties worth sampling in their places of origin:
Popular in the Ecuadorian Andes, humitas are a corn-based breakfast item or afternoon snack that’s often served alongside a cup of coffee. Though similar in appearance to a tamale, humitas are made from a mixture of ground corn, onion, garlic, cheese, eggs and cream. This is then packed inside a corn husk and steamed. You’ll have no trouble spotting them on the street or in stores. Just look for the bound corn husk packaging.
This traditional dish of the Ecuadorian coast is essentially seasoned fish or seafood (usually prawns, crab or squid) marinated in a coconut sauce composed of onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, coconut milk, cilantro and achiote. This is served with rice and patacones (green plantain chips) on the side. For the best of the best, enjoy this dish in the Esmeraldas Province.
Melcocha is a chewy, taffy-like candy. When in Baños, be sure to stop by one of the many Melcocheros for a sample of the region’s most famous product. Stick around to watch the stretching and kneading process unfold before your eyes.
Cuy, or roasted guinea pig, is an Ecuadorian specialty. It’s typically reserved for special occasions due to its price (the equivalent of about $20 for a whole cuy). Do as the locals do, and dig in with your hands. Once you’ve gotten past the gristly skin and bones, it’s all fair game.
Backroads Pro Tip
Save cuy for your visit to Cuenca, Ecuador’s best-known city for this particular dish. If the whole guinea pig is too much for you, it’s possible at some restaurants to order just a single piece or quarter cuy.
Ecuadorian Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
· Ceviche: a marinated fish or seafood dish
· A la plancha: grilled
· A la parilla: barbecued
· Hornado: roasted
· Seco: a stewed meat plate
· Cuy: guinea pig
Words to Know When Dining Out
While many Ecuadorians speak English quite well, locals always appreciate when visitors try their hand at a few local words and phrases. Here are a few to get you started at a local restaurant:
· The check, please.: La cuenta, por favor.
· I’m a vegetarian: Soy vegetariano/a
· What do you recommend?: ¿Qué me recomienda?
· I would like...: Me gustaría…
· Water: Agua
· Where is the restroom?: ¿Donde esta el baño?
· Bon appetit!: Buen provecho!
Though it’s never obligatory to tip your waitstaff at an Ecuadorian restaurant, a tip of 3–10 percent is customary when dining out. Keep in mind that at higher-end restaurants, a 12 percent tax and 10 percent service charge are likely already included in your bill. If you’d like to tip extra, tipping an additional 3–5 percent is customary. At the cheaper restaurants, it’s recommended to tip anywhere from 5 to 10 percent. Be sure to tip your server directly instead of leaving the money on the table, as you might in the United States.
In Ecuador, you’ll find dining hours align with what you’re used to at home. Breakfast is usually served from 6:30 to 9:00 a.m., lunch from noon to 2:00 p.m. and dinner between 6:00 and 10:00 p.m.
As for dress code, it’s safe to assume most establishments are casual dress, unless you’re dining at one of Quito, Cuenca or Guayaquil’s finer restaurants.