Ecuador has eating options for most palates, especially in Guayaquil and Quito, where international cuisine, fast food and most styles of South American dishes can be found. Ecuadorian specialties vary depending on which region you find yourself in, but one thing’s for sure – the whole country loves plantain. Typical plates include meat or fish, with a choice of carbs plus vegetables or salad. It’s common to be served double carbs (commonly rice, with beans, lentils, plantain or potatoes) with most meals.
Encebollado (fish stew) is typically regarded as one of the national dishes. It’s eaten at all times of day and is usually made with tuna or albacore and fresh tomato, and is flavored with coriander (cilantro) and pepper, plus leaves from the woody South American shrub named cassava. It may also be garnished with pickled red onion rings, ripe avocado, banana chips or bread, plantain, and popcorn.
Something many travelers to the region want to try is cuy (kew-y) otherwise known as roasted guinea pig. Commonly found in the mountainous areas of Ecuador, it has a small gamey flavor. Meanwhile, adventurous eaters in the Amazon search out chontacuro, a protein-rich, fat worm that grows in the core of the chonta palm tree. It can be eaten raw or cooked.
Ceviche (fish or shrimp marinated in lime juice, onion, tomato and cilantro) is served in most areas, and is the most healthy and delicious option. The Ecuadorian recipe differs slightly from other South American countries in that Ecuadorians often cook the fish first, then marinate it. To the horror of some other countries, Ecuadorians sometimes garnish theirs with ketchup.
In Cuenca, the heavenly freshly carved hornado, or spit-roasted pig, has to be tried. It’s usually served up in the main market with salad. A snack any time of day (commonly at breakfast) are patacones (fried green plantain) and later in the day empanadas (stuffed pastries), often served with cheese and meat, plus fish and sometimes plantain shells.
On the coast and in tropical areas, fruit bowls, juices, smoothies and seafood are in abundance. The quality is surprisingly good and it's inexpensive. Look out for small vendors blending drinks, and restaurants selling pescado encocado (fish or shrimp in coconut sauce), usually served with plantain, rice and salad.
Seco de pollo is another popular option with a tropical feel, it's essentially chicken stew with a twist, often made with tangy passionfruit or orange juice in the sauce, and served with rice.
Ecuadorian Sweet Treats
Espumilla (meaning foam) is a typical Ecuadorian dessert, with a creamy texture made with egg whites, sugar and fruit pulp – mostly guava. Find it sold in parks and at markets.
Helado de paila ('ice cream in a pail') is a typically highland treat which originated in Ibarra. More of a sorbet than ice cream, it's a mixture of fruit, sugar, and ice whipped up in a copper bowl, almost as fun to watch being made as it is to eat.
Ecuadorian quesadillas are different from the Mexican savory versions made with tortillas, these are commonly found in Quito, and are sweet pentagonal pastries stuffed with cheese – typically enjoyed at breakfast with a hot chocolate.
Typically found on the coast, flan de piña (pineapple flan), is sometimes made with coconut or other fruits. It has a custard-like crème brûlée consistency and is flavored with vanilla and rum.
Also popular is the ubiquitous pastel de tres leches (three milk cake), a sponge cake made with evaporated milk, condensed milk and thick cream. It can be topped with cream, syrup or fruit.
Quimbolitos are the sweet tamales of the nation, made with cornflour, butter, eggs, cheese and raisins and are cooked wrapped in banana leaves or achira leaves; they’re typically served as a dessert or for breakfast with a cup of coffee.
Indigenous people discovered Ecuador’s ‘black gold’ way before the Spanish settlers. They turned the bitter cacao beans into a tasty beverage by mixing it with native flavors like cinnamon, vanilla and chili. When the Spanish arrived, they began harvesting the beans for commercial gain, creating plantations along the tropical coastline. Aristocrats and the European upper classes developed a penchant for the popular beverage when it was mixed with sugar. Decadent chocolate shops slowly opened in wealthy neighborhoods, and chocolate became a sign of wealth. Hosts would show off to their guests at fancy dinner parties by serving exotic flavors. By the mid-19th century, Ecuador was the largest exporter of cacao beans to Europe. But the industry’s success wasn’t to last; a disease swept the plantations at the beginning of the 20th century, most of Ecuador’s cacao crop was destroyed, and investors turned their attention to coffee and banana production instead. Cacao production continued to be carried out by small family farms, and West Africa took over as the world’s biggest cocoa producer. Travelers to Ecuador today can visit many of the remaining micro cacao producers, who collectively are steadily making a comeback on a world scale, and have a growing reputation for making some of the highest-quality chocolate products in the world. The biggest global chocolate producers (Hershey’s, Nestlé, Mars etc) also have a foot in the chocolate producing nation.
At street level, you would expect everything to be flavored with the native cocoa, but alas, most of it is exported. The best way to experience true Ecuadorian chocolate is on a cocoa farm tour, which are run throughout the country (Mindo, although not a cacao-growing region, has several tours and chocolate shops). Typically guests will see the crops, which look like oval-shaped pods, beginning as a green color and ripening to a yellow and orange hue. The layered flavors in Ecuador’s cocoa are indicative of the tropical influences in the soil. Cocoa beans ripen inside these pods, in a soft, white coating. Once picked they are fermented, roasted and ground into powder. On tours you can usually try grinding cocoa beans and then turning the fruits of your labor into a delicious hot drink or dessert. Some farms offer a full farm-to-table meal with the experience, plus a gift shop where you can pick up proper Ecuadorian chocolate products to take home. If you’ve no time for a chocolate tour, the large supermarkets (and of course, the airports) stock an Ecuador-produced chocolate bar or two.
Nearly every town has a local panadería (bakery) selling fresh bread, plus cakes and pastries oozing with dulce de leche (caramel). You can pick up the most extravagant looking sweet treats for less than a dollar. More remote towns may still have a panadería that uses a traditional stone oven – often delicious buttery pan dulce (sweet bread) is made in these. Around Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), November 2, you may see panaderías across the country selling guaguas de pan (baby bread) – colorfully decorated sweet breads shaped like babies in blankets. Cayambe is known for its special bizcochos, a somewhat dry, flaky pastry with a hint of anis, served with hot chocolate.
Eating Customs & Tipping
Buen provecho is what Ecuadorians say before a meal, directly translating to 'good appetite', but meaning 'enjoy your meal'. (It's also polite to say this to other diners as you exit a restaurant.) Top end restaurants will commonly add a 10% service charge to your bill, plus tax. In this case there is no need to leave a tip. In most other restaurants, tax will be included in the bill, and tips are not expected but welcomed – for good service use a ballpark figure of 10%, and 15% for outstanding service.
Ecuador has a diverse range of local and international dining options. Booking a table on the day is usually fine, with the exception of holidays and festivals. Book top end restaurants in advance.
● Restaurants Range from streetside vendors to plush air-conditioned, security-guard-fronted venues. Mostly South American options, plus international cuisine in bigger cities.
● Cafes Many places disappointingly serve instant coffee, so ask if they use real ground coffee beans before you order. Most cafes have wi-fi and are open early morning to early evening. Mostly, be patient: coffee often takes time here.
● Hotels Many hotels do have restaurants, only the international brands will have superior restaurants.
Essential Food & Drink
Canelazo Aguardiente (sugarcane alcohol) with hot cider and cinnamon, distilled and warmed, just right for Andean nights.
Ceviche Ecuador’s take on sushi, but cooked a bit.
Chifle Because who doesn't love banana chips?
Chugchucara Too much pork for just one fork?
Pajaro Azul Herb-infused aguardiente (sugarcane alcohol) that will have you seeing stars.