Monday, January 27, 2014

The Epicurean's Guide to Ecuadoran Cuy-sine

Please pardon the pun. Most likely it doesn't mean much to you, anyhow, but if you read some of my Facebook posts over the past week then you have an inkling of what the play on words is all about.We'll get to that in a minute.
And how do you eat them???
Ecuadoran cuisine is really nothing special. It is heavily based on corn and potatoes; literally hundreds of different varieties of these two staples are grown in Ecuador. The food is much more bland than what one finds in Mexico, for example. Restaurants generally don't have any other salsa than ketchup, although in some of the market stalls I found some interesting mojos, as they would be called in the Canaries, that added a bit of spice. While during my earlier travels I had seen many, many chifas (essentially Chinese restaurants) I noticed exactly one this time around, in Cuenca. The chifas reflect a certain influx of Chinese immigrants in the past, but maybe they just didn't move into the south. I dunno.
Entire Happy Pig, roasted over a fire and resting at peace in a market stall
Other staples (for those who can afford it) are seafood, chicken, and beef. There is for example the chaulafan, a fried rice dish that is either served up with bits of chicken or quite often fresh shrimp. You can find it in a chaufa, but most restaurants will also serve this very tasty staple. I had it one night in a small restaurant and paid about $3.50 for a big, heaping plate of shrimp-centric chaulafan. 
About $4.50 for a plate of the above chicken, potato, corn, and a Pilsener

When it came to eating out, I stuck to these three options: sidewalk vendors, market stalls, and small restaurants that cater to the everyday Ecuadoran who has not attained middle-class status. Prices for yummy food vary between $1 to not much more than $6 to $8; go into a restaurant that has a VISA or Tripadvisor sticker on the door, and you can be assured that you will pay twice as much for the same food. OK, there's always the big concern about food safety. I don't want to deny the possibility of catching something that would make my infectious-disease-doctor friend Alan all excited, but the truth is, you can catch something just as easily in a seemingly clean restaurant as on the street corner. The gutter grills don't use buckets and rags—the $1 spits with a sausage, a potato, a piece of leathery meat, and a few other delectables, all doused with mayo (called a pincho), are simply thrown on a grill, and if there are germs, they're probably yours.
Plantains, chicken feet, and meat skewers
A true pincho on the left—see that fat sausage on the left spit?
While the street vendors are unbeatable if you simply want to satisfy the small hunger (that's why they pop up like mushrooms when the streets fill with people in the late afternoon, waiting for buses and hurrying home), the stalls in the "food courts" of the established markets are a fabulous choice for a midday meal (or breakfast, although I didn't use this option this time around thanks to my staying in a real hotel—however, on previous trips I had had quite a few $1 breakfasts in the markets). For $2 to $4 you can get filled up. A typical midday meal will consists of a soup and a main course, usually rice or potatoes plus something meaty. On our trip to the national park, we had the pictured potato/corn/ avocado soup and as a main fresh trout (steamed with a garlic sauce on top of a bed of rice and veggies) plus cheese slices with some sugar-cane-based syrupy stuff:
Potato/corn/avocado soup
Steamed trout with garlic cream sauce
Unpasteurized cheese with molasses
So, you ask, what the heck was I talking about when I spelled Cuy-sine in that different fashion? Simple: Ecuadorans like to eat their pets, or maybe they are not their pets but just ours, but they still eat them. We're talking about guinea pigs here, or in the local lingo cuy. The name, you will be happy to know, comes from the cute, high-pitched sound that cuyes make—cuy, cuy, cuy, ...
A herd (yep, that's the official term) of still-content cuyes, not knowing what fate awaits them
Guinea pigs are considered as somewhat of a specialty food in Ecuador, as evidenced by the fact that one doesn't find them on the menu of many restaurants and the price is generally pretty high. But they certainly are not a novelty either, as evidenced by the BBQ implements for preparing them that are offered in the local markets.
Four-cuyes rotisserie for your BBQ pleasure
One evening, close to one of the markets, I found three portable cuy grilling stations that were staffed by women who seemed to know what they were doing. They tied the skinned and gutted guinea pigs with twine to wooden staffs that then were placed over a nice charcoal fire. The cuyes were salted, and the heads (including the perky little ears that eventually would turn crisp) and paws were still in place. Once a customer would plop down $5 for an entire piglet (plus another buck for some potatoes and corn), the fire was put on steroids and the roasting process finished off quickly. With a few hacks of a small cleaver, the cuy would be liberated from the staff and grace the plate, paws, teeth, crispy ears, and all. The taste is a bit gamey, not unlike rabbit. The roasted skin tastes like that of a chicken. Once you get over the fact that the little buck-toothed guy is looking at you, it's a really delicious meal.
Skinned cuy and twine wait for the action
On the pole, still a bit pale
Half-done, waiting for the finishing touches
A bit of oil helps the overall crispness
A whole cuy—a whole meal
OK, so dead rodents may not be everybody's taste. What about ceviche, made of fresh sea shells that are prepared with lime juice, cilantro, oil, onion, tomato, and salt? Super yummy, and prepared in a market stall right in front of you. And please, don't forget to order your cervecita, the 650 ml bottle of the ubiquitous Cerveza Pilsener.

Opening the shells with a mini guillotine
Mixing all the ingredients (no, the fried fish didn't go in there)

Ceviche de concha
Boy, that was yummy. Ceviche, of course, can be prepared with either fish or shrimp. The lime essentially "cooks" the raw ingredients. If you want something less exotic, try mote pillo, a corn-based meat, or egg, or chicken dish.
Two fat sausages and a chuleta on top of rice (and yes, that's a Bud!)—mote pillo
Can't decide what to eat? Just look at the wall and order your chicken:
You can have anything, as long as it is chicken

Caldo de pollo and a quarter of a chicken, with Cerveza Pilsener
As you can tell, I had fun eating and drinking my way through Ecuador. Here are a few more impressions in pictures:
Fruit stand in the market
The egg monger
Strawberries and cherries by the wheelbarrow full
Butcher in the market
They look like scampi but are blossoms that are used for an aromatic drink (calazo)
Hundreds of these sidewalk vendors sell any type of fruit and vegetable
Coconuts and a Worksman cycle
Granadilla (Passiflora ligularis) unopened ...
... and with its delicious seedy interior reveiled
Where chicken come from

Why have a 650ml beer when you can have 4 liters?
And just in case you haven't figured it out yet: I really love to eat and drink! Cheers,


Thursday, January 23, 2014

El Cajas National Park—hiking at 3,800 meters

This really was supposed to be the blog entry about food and other good stuff, but I had such an unbelievably great time today on my excursion to the El Cajas National Park that I simply have to write about it.
Driving through an Alpine valley toward the cloud forest
During my city bus tour yesterday the guide had mentioned the possibility of a trip to the national park, and I had been able to talk a couple from Montana, Bob and Julie, into booking the same trip—we needed a minimum of three people to make the excursion happen. When I showed up at 8:50 this morning at the cathedral, our guide, Miguel, and Bob and Julie were already waiting, so off we went. It was about a 40-minute uphill drive from Cuenca (about 2,500 meters elevation) to the base of the real climb. Here we tanked up on coffee, and I bought some Oreos, in case we were going to be caught by unforeseen circumstances.
Our starting point was above this lake
The driver of our modern van took us all the way up to the highest spot of the road that leads on to Guayaquil. At exactly 4,167 meters (or 13,671 feet), this must have been one of the highest roads I've ever been on. Up here one is on the altiplano, the treeless sponge that regulates Ecuador's water supply. Precipitation (rain or simple clouds and fog) on the west side of the Continental Divide will flow into the Pacific; on the eastern side, all the water eventually collects into the Amazon basin and dumps out into the Atlantic, more than 5,000 kilometers away. Quite a humbling thought when one sees the small waterfalls and lakes and rivulets. We drove back down for about 300 meters elevation loss and then started our walk. Yesterday, it had sounded as if we'd go for a pleasant walk around some lake—but the truth was that we were about to embark on a 3-hour, 7-mile hike that bordered on trekking.

At about 12,500 feet one can feel every little incline, and even walking downhill requires more effort than one would suspect. Miguel, himself around the 60-year-mark, made sure that we paced ourselves, with many stops and the opportunity to look around. After the first kilometer or so, our small group was alone, and we didn't see anybody else except for two fishermen in the distance. The soil is moist, cushioning every step in a pleasant way. In some spots it felt as if we were walking on a sponge, and in a few places we had to be careful to not slip in muddy sections. There were lakes everywhere, some large, some tiny, and rivulets were babbling along. Wherever one looked, there were small waterfalls, and the sound of running water was ever present.

It was a good thing that we had to walk at an easy pace and stop often because it allowed us to really look around and notice all those tiny little flowers and plants that dot the ground. There was one plant that looked like a dandelion, but it had no stem and the blossom was stuck to some flat leaves; the same was true for the daisies—no stem. Next to the flowers were lichen-like plants that were soft to the touch and reminded me of star-like patterns one finds in baroque church ornamentation. It was a foreign world with a ground-hugging flora that would suddenly explode into color, only to meld back into all shades of green.

We did walk through a small stretch of forest. These were quinoa trees, which don't have anything to do with the fashionable grainy stuff that health-foodies like so much. The tree is called in Spanish arbol de papel, or paper tree, because of its bark that flakes off like the layers of a croissant—seriously, they should call it croissant tree! These odd creatures were between 300 to 500 years old, all gnarly and twisted in inexplicable patters. The bark reminded me of that of madrone trees that also lose their outer layers.

We didn't see any wildlife except a few tiny birds, but we did come across a healthy pile of something resembling dog shit; Miguel told us that it was the "poo" of the lobo de la montana. A while later, some not-so-inviting smell alerted us to the rabbit-like droppings of alpacas, the cousins of llamas that like to crap in the same spot over and over again.
The lobo de la montana craps big'uns ...
... and the alpaca produces coffee-bean sized pellets
The weather steadily improved, and finally the sun came out and we could shed a few layers. It was simply gorgeous. I was so glad that my knee was holding up, and I have decided that I will check out a trekking trip in Argentina that I had read an article about. And then there is Kilimanjaro, something on my own, secret bucket list. That leg behaved!

After about three hours we finally got back to the road, at a somewhat lower elevation than where we had started. Our driver was waiting for us, and the four of us piled into the van. Included in the $50 price for this tour was our lunch, which we ate in a scenic restaurant at our original starting point. We were greeted with a canelazo, a tart yet sweet, slightly alcoholic drink that's served warm, made from a particular plant the name of which escapes me (I later happened to see it in a street vendor's basket). This was followed by one of the best potato soups I ever had, with lots of fresh corn kernels and a generous slice of avocado in it. And the main course was trout—the others went for the pan-fried kind while I opted for the steamed version, with a garlic-cream sauce. Delicious.

With guide Miguelito

After lunch, we drove back down the mountain to Cuenca. On the way we saw some wild llamas on the road, and the vistas were reminiscent of a drive through the Alps. I have to say that our group was perfect: Julie, Bob, and I really hit it off, as if we had known each other for years. And Miguel was the perfect guide—not overbearing, full of interesting information, with a good sense of humor, and just the kind of attitude that actually makes you want to tip him. If you ever need a personal guide—who has been trained by the ministry of tourism—whilst in Cuenca, he can be reached at 099 820 6423, or I hope you enjoyed the photos of my excursion to the paramo, and I hope that you will—someday—get a chance to see this amazing place yourselves.
The paramo at its best
And I promise, the food entry will come—this afternoon I collected a little bit more material for the Epicurean's Guide to Ecuadoran Cuy-sine.