A culinary guide to Quito, Ecuador
Emerging from the shadow of its gastronomic neighbours, Ecuador shines as an exciting hub for South American cuisine, with a new generation of chefs rediscovering the country’s incredible produce.
While Quito is a superlative spot for an education in Ecuador’s blossoming culinary scene, I hadn’t expected to find myself actually spending the day at school. “For many years, this was a kindergarten,” says Santiago Rosero, one of the pioneers behind Fermento. Part-cooking cooperative, part-bar, the project hosts a rotating lineup of chefs in the old classrooms, with tables and chairs arranged in the former playground.
Located in the not-so-trendy La Vicentina neighbourhood, at the front of the space there’s a small organic market, which leads through to the old school. I order an Ecuadorian IPA while we talk, with an artisanal blue cheese burger on the way. A short walk away, in the Plaza José Navarro, 30 or so people are queuing up for street food: tripa mishqui (barbecued tripe) and deep-fried empanadas. The scene stands in sharp contrast to the cutting-edge cool of Fermento. Is any of this for them? Santiago seems to know what I’m going to ask next.
“Look, I don’t want to be part of the gentrification here,” he says. “I want to be part of this neighbourhood. In the future, hopefully we’ll have food festivals to involve more of the local businesses. For now, everything is promoted boca a boca — by word of mouth only.”
Fermento would be a remarkable project in any city at any time, but it seems truly extraordinary in Quito — especially when Santiago tells me it was launched immediately after the city’s initial lockdown ended in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. He’d never have chosen it this way, but the virus and the business are now inseparable.
“I don’t want to get too carried away or overstate it, but what we did was kind of heroic,” he says. “To stand and fight in the middle of this crazy moment.” I take a bite of the burger and don’t disagree for a second. “We were born while a lot of people were dying.”
The tentacles of the disease still spread through Quito, but it was impossible to ignore just how much the city is thriving. There are trendy cafes charging as much for a flat white as other places are for an almuerzo, the popular three-course set-menu lunches found across this corner of the continent. The value of putting Ecuador’s astonishing larder to the fore has also been recognised — up here, high in the Andes, the capital has made a real effort to resist Americanisation compared to its coastal rival Guayaquil.
Even at the top end of the capital’s dining scene, there’s been a move towards something more indigenous — drawing on a mind-boggling array of local ingredients that includes recently rediscovered varieties of ancient grains, myriad endemic root veg, maize and fruits for which we’d struggle to find English names, not to mention Ecuador’s prized quinoa and avocados.
“We’re a fairly small country with a lot of diversity — from the Galápagos to the mountains here and the coast and, of course, a lot of seafood. We also have the Amazon,” explains chef Emilio Dalmau inside Casa Gangotena. The grand hotel has been here in one form or another for centuries and its kitchen has long been at the highest end of Quiteño cuisine. While it isn’t priced with locals in mind, the head chef insists the menus reflected the nation. “Our cuisine is like that, a mix of the traditions of the people from all over Ecuador as well as our ancestors. One of the dishes on the menu is locro de papas, a soup made with three types of potato and local spices.”
Rudimentary though it may be, locro is ever-present at this formal, French-influenced restaurant, but also at some of the plastic-chair, cheek-by-jowl joints in other neighbourhoods around Quito.
“Every six months, we search the country again and try to find new things from Ecuador,” continues the chef. “Go back 10 or 15 years, all the fine-dining cuisine here in Quito was French or Italian. Those are lovely, of course, but there were no good-quality local options. Now I think there’s a generation trying to make very good food based on the recipes of our grandmothers.”
Leading this rustic renaissance are such organisations as Quito’s Canopy Bridge, a nonprofit network that connects indigenous farmers with food suppliers, who in turn provide many of the ingredients found in Quito’s high-end restaurants. Over in the La Carolina neighbourhood, Somos is another of the fancier food addresses in town. It’s the sort of place that would surely catch the eye of Michelin, if the guide ever deigned to cast an eye in this direction (an oversight that includes Ecuador’s continued omission from The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list; the country only recently made its Latin America list, with a single inclusion for chef Alejandro Chamorro’s Quito restaurant, Nuema). Then the pandemic hit and Somos’ entire business model seemed dangerously irrelevant. Rather than sit back and wait for things to get better, chef Alejandra Espinoza and husband Signo Uddenberg simply created something new.
“With Covid-19, we never know how many people would come in, so we launched La Guaguasería,” says the chef as we sit down to a kaleidoscopic array of dishes from her newly evolved menu. The titular guaguasa, a flatbread named after the Quechua word for ‘small child’, is stuffed with Alejandra’s favourite Ecuadorian dish, seco de pollo — chicken cooked with orange and beer. A celebrated staple of the Day of the Dead festivities, in some early iteration of the restaurant, guaguasa was supposed to be one of the only dishes offered, but now in front of me there’s also a colourful poke-like salad bowl of camote (sweet potato), a rainbow of empanadas and a way-better-than-it-sounds dish of guinea pig dumplings.
“By June, we knew the pandemic wasn’t going to be over any time soon and we didn’t want to lose our flow of clients, or for them to forget us,” says the chef, who had to let two-thirds of her staff go due to the economic downturn. “This was an idea we wanted to do in the future, so we moved it forward. It’s less elaborate, so we can operate with fewer staff.”
They aim to bring back the high-end restaurant in 2021, but La Guaguasería has proven so popular it’s already earned a future in some guise — perhaps in the basement of the current property. The big draw at the moment is a sprawling brunch on weekends — that and a striking indoor mural that hangs over the bar where some of Quito’s most inventive cocktails are created; most notable is the miske margarita (made from Ecuador’s much-overlooked answer to tequila). “We’ll see what happens,” says Alejandra. “For now, I just keep trying new things. If I don’t do something, I’ll go nuts!”
A taste of Quito: three unmissable restaurants
1. Salnés Gastro-Picantería
Chef-owner Mauricio Acuña seeks out ‘lost’ local produce: ferns that double as asparagus, overlooked Amazonian fish and black pork that serves as buttery ibérico. The small, regularly changing menu of simple-yet-refined dishes is centred on local produce largely drawn from a growing network of indigenous farmers.
2. Chez Tiff
Ecuador’s pedigree native chocolate — by the likes of Pacari, To’ak and Mindo — have been storming the international stage of late. In the historic city centre, chocolate master Bertrand Indemini, originally from Switzerland, has set up shop running demos and tastings explaining the entire process of chocolate production.
3. Agave Spirit Ecuador
Just north of the city, almost on the Equator, this complex champions miske, Ecuador’s version of tequila, as the would-be national drink. Tour the excellent agave museum, sip the Andean agave cactus spirit and nibble pickled agave flowers. You can even take part in a naming ritual for your very own baby cactus.
Four foods to try in Quito
1. Bolón de verde
Originally from the coast but now popular nationwide, these balls of mashed plantain and cheese make for a hearty and comparatively healthy breakfast by local standards.
2. Tripa mishqui
Yes, they could be described as flame-seared cow guts, but tripa mishqui is undeniably a local speciality, especially in Quito’s La Vicentina neighbourhood.
3. Locro de papas
A Quiteño staple, the locro de papas comes in many guises, but should always contain plenty of potato and be served piping hot, often topped with native avocado.
Quito may not be on the coast, but Ecuadorians from any part of the country will insist that their citrus-seasoned fish is as good as anything you’ll find in Chile or Peru.
These fried potato cakes are something like stuffed fritters, often filled with cheese and served with peanut sauce. Don’t ask about the calorie content.
Published in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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