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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Ecuador

Historic Diet

Ecuadorian Food - Cotacachi

Ecuador occupies a relatively small space today, but it shifts dramatically from the Andes Mountains in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, giving the landscape and historic diet significant variations. Also sitting close to North America, many foods from the north quickly made their way to Ecuador, some even arriving before the first people settled the lands.

The native plants have always been the base of the diet, including the diet of the early settlers of the region. Along the coasts and at lower elevations fruits were and still are very popular, although many of these fruits are not well known outside the region. These include popular foods like guava, mango, blackberries, and strawberries as well as less known fruits like zapote, lulo, nispero, mamoncillo, guanabana, uchuva, and others. At higher elevations these fruits weren't as common, as the diet was more heavily based on potatoes and quinoa, a hardy grain. Various types of beans, cassava (yuca), and other plants were also common in the country.

The animals present in Ecuador also made up a part of the historic diet, although animals were a secondary source of food. The animals used for food included mammals, such as rabbits and deer, birds like partridges, and sea animals including the freshwater trout, pike, and catfish as well as the saltwater fish in the Pacific Ocean.

Culinary Influences

Ecuadorian Food - Food

As people arrived to the lands that are now known as Ecuador, new foods arrived. These plants came with the winds, waters, animals, and with these early settlers. This spread of foods included tomatoes, peppers, corn (maize), peanuts, melons, squash, cassava, papayas, chocolate, vanilla, avocado, and others. Today all of these foods can be found in most, if not all South American countries, including Ecuador, although few of them can grow at elevation.

With a vast array of foods available, these early settlers used plants and animals to form their diet, including both the plants native to the region as well as those introduced from nearby regions. However, as most of the people lived at elevation in Ecuador and few plants can grow here, the diet of the people was more limited than it was at lower elevations. In the mountains the diet remained much as it had for centuries, based on potatoes, quinoa, and beans, but the addition of corn was quickly adopted. From this point, into the 1400s, little changed in the diet other than in food combinations and cooking techniques as the people truly lived off the land as hunters, gathers, fishers, and later as farmers.

The Europeans arrived and settled the region in the 1400-1500s and most of them demanded the same foods they ate in Europe. This led to the introduction of European dishes, cooking techniques, and ingredients. Some dishes were brought over without any changes, but most of these dishes required ingredients that weren't present in Ecuador so these settlers found local foods to use as substitutes, while at other times they introduced new plants and animals to the region.

Much of this European influence came from Spain as the region became a Spanish colony and most settlers were from Spain. This led to the introduction of Spanish-styled soups, stews, desserts, and other dishes. Even today the heavy Spanish influence is impossible to miss, although most dishes in Ecuador use local ingredients so they are quite distinct compared to Spanish cuisine.

Despite adopting many local plants and animals for dishes, including the European-inspired dishes, the Europeans also introduced many new plants and animals to the region. Although hundreds of plants and animals were introduced to the region by the Europeans, a few of the most commonly consumed of these were wheat, rice, pigs, chicken, and cattle. Others were also introduced and are now common in Ecuador, although they differ in terms of popularity and importance, including onions, cilantro, black pepper, limes, garlic, broccoli, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, olives, bananas, apples, and oranges.

Even today the base of the people's diet is a combination of local ingredients and European-introduced ingredients. The people maintain a plant-based diet with potatoes, beans, and corn at the core, but rice is now very common and most meats consumed are from the Europeans, including pork, chicken, and beef.

Since the late 1800s the diet has changed substantially for a number of reasons, but primarily due to technological improvements. Better transportation and storage techniques have allowed for the importation (and exportation) of foreign foods, although few people can afford these outside the major cities. More importantly, better preservation methods have increased the shelf life of foods and have given the people foods that are not in season. Despite the technological changes, few people have truly altered their diets in Ecuador.

In recent decades there have been a growing number of ethnic restaurants in Quito and other large cities, but they haven't actually changed or altered the local cuisine, but rather have only added to it.

When & Where to Eat

Breakfast is the first meal of the day in Ecuador and this meal tends to be somewhat small and simple. Eggs, potatoes, rice, fruit, toast, tortillas, and pancakes are all common as is coffee or tea. Most people stick to one or two of these foods for breakfast and they usually eat in the home, although some breakfast restaurants exist and are slowly growing in popularity.

Mornings are often times interrupted by a snack, again usually including tea or coffee. Again, this snack is small as lunch tends to be the largest meal of the day in Ecuador. Lunch generally lasts from about noon to 2:00 pm and during this time many people go home to eat, meaning shops are often closed during this time. Lunch almost always consists of a soup, a meat (or seafood), potatoes or rice, and other fruits or vegetables, including fried plantains or yuca. The meal is often finished with coffee or tea and in some places a siesta, or nap. Most people still eat lunch at home, but in some places, especially in the larger cities, this is slowly ending as people eat at work as they bring food from home, buy food from street vendors, or eat in restaurants as they avoid the long mid-day break.

Because of the large lunch, dinner tends to be a bit smaller and is not usually served until 8:00 pm at the earliest. More commonly dinner is served at about 10:00 pm and at large gatherings, parties, or business meetings it may begin even later. If eating dinner in the home, it tends to be a rather small meal, but for parties, large gatherings, or business dinners it is typically a huge feast.

Staple Foods

Beans: beans are served with numerous dishes as a side
Corn: corn is used to make a number of dishes
Potatoes: a common side dish, usually potatoes are not served with other starches
Rice: a common side dish that replaces quinoa, usually rice is not served with other starches

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Coastal regions: seafood dominates along the coast, as do beans and plantains
Deep fried guinea pig: this dish is exactly what it sounds like: guinea pig meat (known as cuy) that is deep fried
Mountainous regions: meats, potatoes, and rice are very popular in the mountains
Rain forest regions: soups, yuca (cassava), and fresh fruits like bananas and grapes are very popular

Dining Etiquette

If you're lucky enough to be invited to an Ecuadorian's home be sure to come with a gift such as wine, chocolates, or a cake as this is quite rare and is a sign of friendship. Also dress nicely if you're meeting locals in their home or are meeting business acquaintances. If you are simply eating at a restaurant with friends the dress is a bit more casual, but you should still wear nice clothing.

When meeting locals for a meal be sure to arrive about 30-45 minutes late and up to an hour late for a party. Greet everyone when you arrive; men generally shake hands, while women may kiss each other on the check, but this varies based upon the relationship. As you begin socializing avoid sensitive subjects like religion, politics, money, or even business; if you are eating with business associates let your host bring up business prior to discussing this.

When you are directed to the table, let your host seat you as they may have a place for you; be aware that men and women generally sit on opposite sides of the table. Stand beside your chair until your host sits, then let women sit first (in fact men should stand whenever a woman enters or leaves the room). In a restaurant you may be seated at the same table as other people; politely ignore them, although some people may engage you in conversation if they notice you are foreign.

The host will often begin the drinking with a toast, generally just the word "salud" and he or she will serve you, as a guest, first, but don't eat until your host indicates you may begin with the words "buen provecho." If you are drinking and wine is the beverage of choice try to avoid pouring wine as there are a number of rules when pouring, two of the most important being that you should only pour wine with your right hand and always make sure when you pour it that the bottle is facing forward.

As you get ready to eat, place your napkin in your lap, keep your hands on the table by resting your wrists on the table, and never place your elbows on the table. Eating is done in the continental style, meaning the knife should remain in your right hand and the fork in your left; get used to this style as everything but bread and sandwiches are eaten with utensils, including fruits among others. You should try everything offered to you and if you enjoy something compliment the host and you will be quickly offered more, but if you are offered additional food, initially turn it down then accept it after your host insists.

When you are done eating place your fork and knife together with the tines down pointing to the 10:00 position. Once everyone is done eating expect at least a half hour of conversation either at the table or elsewhere. Your host will dictate the location, but don't get up or excuse yourself until your host does and invites you to do the same. The end of the meal may also be accompanied by a beverage.

If you're eating at a restaurant, you should call the server over by making eye contact and saying "mozo;" if you need the bill you must specifically ask for it. The host is expected to pay for everyone present, but guests should offer to assist, something that will likely be turned down. If a local host does treat you to a meal, try to reciprocate by taking him or her out at a later time. If you're the host, be ready to pay for the entire meal and add a tip of about 10% for good service; sometimes this is already included in the bill as a service charge, but if not tip at your discretion.

Celebrations & Events

The same few foods or drinks seem to be served during most celebrations and events, although a couple holidays have very specific foods attached to them. The most common of these drinks is chicha, which is a fermented drink made from corn; today the audience is still somewhat limited though as only certain regions consume this, but they tend to consume it at every celebration.

A couple dishes are rarely found outside certain holidays. This begins with Easter and Lenten foods. The most popular of these foods is a soup called fanesca, which is a fish soup in a creamy broth filled with beans, lentils, and corn. Another semi-religious holiday, Day of the Dead or dia de los muertos, often offers a fruit drink called "Colada Morada" along with stuffed bread in the shape of children called "guaguas de pan."


Ecuadorian Food - Cocoa tea
Cocoa tea

When it comes to non-alcoholic drinks in Ecuador the options are numerous as tea, soft drink, and other popular drinks are easily accessible in the country. Despite being known around the world as a high quality coffee producer, the coffee found in Ecuador is generally of lower quality as the best is exported; none-the-less, coffee is popular. Also popular amongst the locals are juices as they are made from numerous fruits and are often mixed with milk or water.

Ecuador imports wines primarily from other South American countries despite the fact that they produce their own wines, which are still growing in quality. Beers in Ecuador are also common and a couple local beers are quite popular, including "Pilsener Clausen," "Biela," and "Club." Where Ecuador stands out is in the field of hard liquors as they boast a number of local drinks. The most popular among these is aguardiente, which is distilled from sugar cane and is a common ingredient in mixed drinks. Chicha is a fermented drink made from corn, which was invented by the Incans and was regularly used in religious festivals. Today the drink has lost much of its popularity, but is still common in some areas and during festivals.

The tap water is generally not safe to drink in Ecuador, but in limited mountainous areas it might be. The most cautious course of action is to entirely avoid the tap water and items that could be made from or with the water, such as ice, fruits, and salads. If you do decide to drink the local tap water first check with your hotel or guesthouse to learn the cleanliness of the water in that area. If the water is safe, remember that many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.

This page was last updated: April, 2013