Flavors of Ecuador
I have so many wonderful memories from my trip to Ecuador; the amazing wildlife in the Galapagos, the beautiful colonial villages and the charming and inviting local people will always be with me. But the food is what I miss the most. My memory has always been faulty, but I still remember peeling the crinkly corn husks away from the sweet, cheesy tamale at a small hacienda in Riobamba and biting into a crispy Llapingacho (potato patty stuffed with cheese), kissed golden off the griddle from a street cart in Quito.
Sampling local food gives me the sense of peeking through the curtains into a slice of a region’s culture that is both mysterious and familiar at once. Some of the ingredients may be recognizable, but the preparation and final product are wonderfully foreign to me. Food can tell you so much about people – where they have come from, what they appreciate and how they are influenced by the rest of the world. It’s this narration of the culture, and the blissful comfort of a full belly and satisfied taste buds that has me smitten with Ecuador.
It was love at first bite when I tasted my first spoonful of Locro de Papas, a traditional potato stew anchored by a generous hunk of cheese and littered with avocado. I was at a restaurant in Cuenca, a city in the highlands of Ecuador that had already wooed me with its fascinating history and enchanting street life. This soup was the clincher: creamy, cheesy and steaming of tradition. Originating in the highlands, the recipe stars two of the most abundant and beloved ingredients in Ecuadorian cooking: Andean potatoes and cheese from local dairies.
Potatoes and cheese make an appearance in many of the country’s specialties, but there are countless other mouthwatering staples to lure your palate. Ceviche, a renowned favorite of Ecuadorian locals and travelers alike, makes use of the fresh and plentiful seafood throughout the country. It’s a concoction of seafood, citrus and onion and is juxtaposed by a topping of popcorn for just the right amount of crunch. Other offerings range from items that are cousins to their Mexican counterparts like empanadas and tamales to dishes completely foreign to the typical Westerner’s tongue such as cuy (guinea pig) and goat stew.
I left Ecuador with a whole new list of favorite meals and a recipe book that was creased and dog-eared by the time I stepped off the plane in my home town. While I can think of many reasons to visit Ecuador again, my stomach reminds me most frequently of the things that beckon the loudest. And when I can’t seem to quell the stomach growls, I cook up my own version of Locro de Papas. My recipe attempts to mimic the tastes that I remember from that magic bowl in Cuenca, but uses ingredients you can find in any U.S. grocery store.
Locro de Papas
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 white onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp chili powder
10 medium red potatoes, peeled and chopped
6 cups water
1 ½ cups whole milk
1/8 cup fresh cilantro, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
6 oz. fresh mozzarella, cut into thin slices
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup scallions, chopped
2 avocados, diced
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large soup pot. Add the onions, garlic, cumin and chili powder and stir to combine. Cook until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the potatoes to the pot and continue to cook for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the water and bring to a boil. Continue to cook until the potatoes are very tender, about 15 minutes. And the milk and then, using an immersion blender, blend to a chunky soup consistency (you can also use a potato masher for this step). Add the cilantro and salt and pepper to taste. Divide mozzarella slices into 6 soup bowls. Spoon the hot soup immediately into the soup bowls so the cheese melts. Top with feta cheese, scallions and avocado.