A Taste of Ecuador

By Gianna Mautone

For the past two years, I traveled to Ecuador as part of an immersion trip experience with a delegation of students from Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland. While there, we lived and served in the economically poor communities of Duran, a city in Guayas, a coastal province of Ecuador. In addition to serving at outreach organizations and after-school programs, we spent large portions of our time in the community and neighborhood where we lived, building relationships with our neighbors, sharing in their cultural experiences, and listening to stories about the various joys and challenges of their lives.

The time we spent cooking each day with the help of Ecuadorian volunteers who taught us about the country's staple foods will always be a memorable cultural experience I will cherish. Though most Ecuadorian dishes typically include meat and seafood, we were able to enjoy well-balanced, satisfying, traditional-style vegetarian meals prepared with staple Ecuadorian fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains throughout the duration of our trip.

Although Ecuador is quite small (no bigger than Nevada in size), the country is culturally divided into four regions: the Coast, the Andes mountains, the Amazon rainforest, and the Galapagos Islands. Varied cultural identities exist in each of these regions; thus varying ingredients are used to prepare meals. Because of the abundance of fresh vegetable crops, many traditional Ecuadorian dishes are plant-based. In the coastal region, typical vegetarian staples include lentils, beans, rice, plantains, bananas, and avocados. In the Andes mountain region, potatoes and corn grow abundantly and find their way into many of the region's common dishes. The Amazon rainforest region is where avocados, sugarcane, and cocoa are grown. The Galapagos Islands yield many exotic fruits that are enjoyed throughout the country. Across all the regions, you can be sure to find a common thread: dishes spiced up with aji, Ecuador's traditional hot sauce.

The Ecuadorian spice achiote, a beautiful red blend of ground annatto seeds and spices, is often infused with oil and sold as a flavoring for many recipes. While many traditional Ecuadorian recipes contain chicken, pork, and seafood, many can be easily transformed into delicious vegan meals with just a few substitutions.

Hearty Lentil Stew

(Menestra)
(Serves 4)

A traditional, hearty dish of Ecuador, typically served over white rice. Adapt this recipe to your preference of brown, red or green lentils, noting that cooking time will vary for each type. Aji hot sauce, made from aji peppers, is often an addition to Ecuadorian meals and may be found in specialty stores or Latin American markets in the U.S. It can be easily substituted with your favorite hot sauce.

  • 1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup dry red lentils, rinsed
  • 2 Tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
  • 1 medium red onion, diced
  • 1 medium green bell pepper, diced
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tablespoon cumin
  • Salt to taste
  • Hot sauce to taste
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh squeezed lime juice

Heat vegetable broth and water in a skillet over medium heat. Add lentils. Reduce heat to medium low and cover skillet. Allow to cook for 10-15 minutes, adding water, a Tablespoon at a time, if liquid level gets too low.

Meanwhile, in a separate skillet, heat oil. Sauté onions, green pepper, tomatoes, and garlic. Once softened, add vegetables to lentils and reduce heat to low. Add cumin, salt, and hot sauce. Cover skillet and let simmer for approximately 5 more minutes, until almost all liquid is evaporated.

Remove from heat and mix in fresh squeezed lime juice. Serve atop freshly prepared white or brown rice to round out the meal. If you want to kick up the flavor, top with a few drops of hot sauce.

Total calories per serving: 274 grams Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 39 grams Protein: 14 grams
Sodium: 39 milligrams Fiber: 10 grams

Creamy Potato Peanut Soup

(Sopa Cremosa de Patata y Maní)
(Serves 4)

  • 1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth
  • 2 small white potatoes, peeled, diced
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 small red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • Salt to taste
  • 3 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
  • Hot sauce to taste (optional)
  • 1/3 cup peanut butter
  • Fresh cilantro for garnish

Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add potatoes, onions, red bell pepper, red pepper flakes, and salt. Allow to cook for approximately 5 minutes, then add vegetable broth and optional hot sauce. Cover and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes.

Place peanut butter and soup in a blender (or use an immersion blender). Blend until smooth. Return to pot if reheating is needed. Garnish with cilantro.

Total calories per serving: 247 grams Fat: 14 grams
Carbohydrates: 24 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 210 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Fresh Vegetable Bean Salad

(Ensalada de Verduras Frescas con Habas)
(Serves 6)

Beans, an Ecuadorian staple, are high in nutrients and pack a satisfying punch. This simple salad highlights Ecuador's exotic flavors and fresh, crispy vegetables.

  • 1 medium head broccoli, chopped
  • 1 medium tomato, chopped
  • 1 medium green bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • One 16-ounce can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1 medium avocado, cut into long slices
  • Salt to taste
  • Lime juice to taste
  • Fresh parsley, for garnish

Add chopped broccoli to a pot with enough water to cover the bottom of the pan. Place lid on pot and heat water to a simmer, allowing the broccoli to steam for about 5 minutes, or until softened. Drain water. Let broccoli cool in the refrigerator.

Meanwhile, add tomato, green bell pepper, red onion, pinto beans, and olive oil to a serving bowl and toss to coat vegetables in olive oil. Add broccoli once cooled. Top salad with sliced avocado. Sprinkle with salt and fresh squeezed lime juice to taste. Add fresh parsley for garnish.

Total calories per serving: 247 grams Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 19 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 146 milligrams Fiber: 7 grams

Baked Sweet Plantains

(Maduros al Horno)
(Serves 4)

Plantains, which look like larger, more angular bananas, are one the most abundant crops in Ecuador, making them a staple food of the Ecuadorian diet. They find their way into almost every traditional dish, whether savory or sweet, grilled, baked, fried, or mashed.

Green plantains, often called verdes are the less-ripe, starchier plantain. They are frequently served as a savory side dish. More mature plantains, which will look like blackened, over-ripe bananas are called maduros, meaning ripe, yellow, and mature. These are the sweet plantains you should choose for this recipe.

  • 2 sweet plantains, peeled and sliced
  • 1/2 Tablespoon olive oil
  • Parchment paper (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Chop off the ends of the plantains. Then, make a lengthwise slit along the skin of each plantain, without cutting too deep so that you don't puncture the fruit within. Remove peel. Cut the plantains on an angle into 2-inch-long chunks.

Lightly coat the plantains in oil and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (or lightly greased baking sheet). Bake for approximately 20 minutes at 375 degrees, or until golden brown. Flip halfway through baking time.

Total calories per serving: 124 grams Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 29 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 4 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Potato Pancakes

(Llapingachos)
(Makes four 3-inch pancakes)

Potatoes are a staple in the Ecuadorian diet because of their abundant growth in the mountain region. These lightly fried potato pancakes have a crispy outside and a warm, soft inside. They are usually prepared with achiote, a red seed that is ground and infused with oil for flavoring. Achiote may be found in specialty South American stores, though this recipe uses a mixture of easily accessible alternative spices. Serve potato pancakes as an appetizer or side dish for a fun twist on mashed potatoes.

  • 2 medium potatoes
  • Water, enough to cover potatoes
  • 1/8 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 4 Tablespoons shredded vegan soy cheese
  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil for frying
  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced, for garnish
  • Fresh parsley, for garnish

Thoroughly wash potatoes, then peel and dice. Place diced potatoes in a pot with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat. Once water comes to a boil, reduce to medium heat and let potatoes cook until they are soft. Drain water. Mash potatoes in a mixing bowl with a fork or potato masher.

In a separate bowl, combine turmeric, cumin, cayenne pepper, and salt with 2 teaspoons olive oil. Add spice mixture to potatoes. Place potatoes in the refrigerator for up to 20 minutes to set. Form 3-inch-wide balls in your palm; flatten slightly. Make a hole in the middle of each pancake and place soy cheese inside (about 1 Tablespoon each). Cover cheese with more potato.

Heat 2 Tablespoons oil in a skillet over high heat (carefully place a drop of water into pan to test if it is heated). Once oil is hot, place potato pancakes into pan, cooking for 5 minutes on each side (or until exterior is golden brown). Be careful when flipping not to break. Garnish with thinly sliced scallions and fresh parsley, if desired.

Total calories per pancake: 185 grams Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 20 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 76 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Slow-Cooked Onions and Tofu

(Tofu Guisado)
(Serves 4-5)

Seco de Pollo is the name of a very traditional stewed chicken dish in Ecuadorian cuisine. The classic, savory flavors of this dish can be easily converted into an alternative vegan meal using tofu.

  • 16 ounces extra-firm tofu
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • Salt to taste
  • Black pepper to taste

Press tofu for 10-15 minutes to release moisture using a tofu press (or simply wrap tofu with an absorbent towel and top with a heavy book). Once pressed, cut tofu into approximately 32 cubes.

Heat olive oil in skillet. Once oil is very hot, place tofu in a single layer in the pan. Sprinkle with salt and black pepper to taste. Leave on medium-high heat for approximately 7 minutes (or until bottom is browned), then flip. Brown other side for another 7 minutes. Once tofu is crispy, remove from skillet and place in a separate bowl to the side.

  • ˝ Tablespoon olive oil
  • Small onion, sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tablespoon cumin
  • 1 Tablespoon oregano
  • 1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth
  • 1 Tablespoon cilantro for garnish

Heat oil in skillet. Place onion and garlic in the oil over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add cumin, oregano, and vegetable broth. Let simmer over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, until onions become very soft. Mix in cooked tofu. Let simmer over medium-low heat for approximately 7 minutes, or until tofu absorbs the broth and spices. Garnish with cilantro and serve over white or brown rice, if desired.

Total calories per serving: 131 grams Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 21 grams Protein: 8 grams
Sodium: 388 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Gianna Mautone wrote this article while doing an internship with The Vegetarian Resource Group.