way back in september, i arrived to loja after a very strange yet exciting week of orientation in quito (which, in hindsight, did not in any way “orient” me to the life waiting for me in southern ecuador) tired, bewildered, nervous, curious, anxious and not at all sure what to expect. my “tutor”, who the fulbright commission informed me would be my liaison and guide at the university, had generously offered to host me in her home for a few weeks while i looked for an apartment and before classes started. little did i know that i would end up staying there for almost a month, and that my “tutor” would soon become my “host mom” and i would have a lovely family to be a part of during my time here. in any case, i had been in my host family’s house for no more than two hours when my host sister asked me if i wanted to “dar una vuelta con un amigo”. that was my first time dando vueltas, a popular pastime here in loja that usually means hours of aimless driving around the city, punctuated with the occasional stop for a pilsener or a bottle of zhumir. small town life.
after an hour or so of driving around, my host sister and her friend had a debate over whether or not they should take me to the famous “soda bar” because they weren’t sure if it would get me sick or not. do you think you’ll get sick by eating salchipapas? um, i don’t think so? after some friendly arguing about who would take the blame if i did indeed get sick (we decided it would be best to chalk it up to the new environment), we pulled up to a little stand that was apparently famous for their salchipapas con salsa del soda, or what i know now is the ubiquitous ecuadorian snack: french fries with a mixed sauce of ketchup and mayonnaise, topped with a funky looking piece of hot dog and some lettuce or red onions. my students don’t believe me when i tell them that ecuadorians eat more french fries than americans, but it is most definitely true. you can get french fries, hot dogs, and hamburgers almost anywhere you go in ecuador.
that first encounter with lojano food should have told me a lot about the cuisine here. i’ve previously mentioned my general dislike and/or indifference toward lojano food, but now that i’ve actually tried all that lojano cuisine has to offer i think that i can give y’all a more informed opinion. for those of you who are interested, there is a fantastic ecuadorian food blog that, coincidentally, is written by a lojana who now lives in the states. on her blog you can find amazing pictures and recipes of every kind of ecuadorian and lojano food, plus a complete post dedicated to the aforementioned famous salchipapas at soda bar.
i recently traveled to cuenca, where i had the good fortune of meeting a lovely ecuadorian woman from the el oro province who has studied gastronomy at a culinary institute, and who, from all accounts, is a fabulous cook. we spent much of our time discussing different dishes from around ecuador, and both agreed that lojano cuisine is very distinct from the rest of the country. if i were to describe food here in one sentence it would be: pork, rice, pork, pork, yuca, pork, plaintains, potatoes, pork, rice, and a lot of chicken. i grew up eating the varied, “exotic” dishes of my parent’s native countries – the balance of salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and freshness of vietnam, the famed dumplings, buns, and noodles of northern china and the pickled vegetables, seafood, and spices from my mother’s korean homeland. and even though loja has a supermaxi, the grocery store chain that almost makes you feel like you’re back in the states, it doesn’t carry nearly the variety and amount of “foreign” foods as the grocery stores in big cities like guayaquil, cuenca, or quito, mostly because there is no market for those kinds of goods here. making asian food is nearly impossible, but i still have a few goodies from my quito trip that i’m waiting for the right occasion to bust out. how many people in loja are looking for hoisin sauce, sour cream, buttermilk, jalapeños, spices, or a fancy cheese? sometimes i think i may be the only one.
what i don’t understand is that while there is such an abundance and wide variety of the freshest, non-GMO, locally grown, and sometimes organic fruit and vegetables, lojanos prefer to eat MEAT all the time, and lots of it. people often ask me what i cook for myself, and i just don’t know how to explain to lojanos that sometimes i’ll have a whole PLATE of vegetables for a meal. one of my favorite things is my weekly trip to the sunday outdoor market at san sebastian. the prices are generally fixed, so there is no need for haggling, and i’ve figured out which people usually have the best produce.
here’s a typical dish you could get at a nice restaurant:
speaking of restaurants, unlike big cities in ecuador, the international food scene is pretty much nonexistent in loja. i’ve heard of one or two restaurants that offer “sushi” but my skepticism and my wallet are prohibiting me from being willing to give it a try. there are a few spanish tapas restaurants, and one or two shawarma stands, but pretty much everything else serves típico: arroz con pollo, filete de pollo, estofado de pollo, cecina de chancho, repe, arveja con guineo, etc. there are several “asian” restaurants, which are generally owned by asians (mostly chinese immigrants) and are known here as chifas. however, any ecuadorian will tell you that the chifas are more ecuadorian than asian, but due to their huge portions and vegetarian options they are good for when you are chuchaqui, on sundays when everything is dead, or when you want to stretch a few leftover meals out of it.
most lojanos do not eat dinner, and instead have a merienda consisting of cafecito, a piece of bread, and maybe some tea, cheese and fruit, so there aren’t many restaurants that are open in the evenings for what we would consider dinner. loja is known for our humitas and tamales, and other typical accompaniments to the evening coffee include prensados, empanadas de harina, bolones de verde o chicharrón, and quimbolitos. again, curious foodies can find beautiful pictures and recipes for all of these dishes at this food blog. i do have to say though, the food blog offers a glorified and gourmet view of lojano food, and what you’ll actually find here has about 90% more rice and 80% less vegetables.
and while i still miss the comfort food of my childhood and the immense variety of options and ethnic foods in the united states, i’m eating well here in ecuador. as evidenced by the market picture, i eat a lot of fruit, and it couldn’t be fresher, healthier, more affordable, or tastier. i’m sure i will be appalled by the quality and the price of american produce when i return home. and i’m also sure that my stomach and my taste buds will explode from all the spices and bold flavors after a year of eating bland ecuadorian food. but it is still possible, albeit much more expensive, to recreate tastes of home in my teeny tiny kitchen. i have a bachelor-pad-worthy portable stovetop burner, microwave, blender, about three feet of counter space, and a few pots and one pan, but i do my best!
i’m still having some interesting food adventures, and my upcoming trip to mexico city will certainly be filled with plenty of face-stuffing. i’ve considered fasting this week to try to balance out the massive amounts of eating i plan on doing. but in all seriousness, i can’t wait to try some authentic mexican fare. in the meantime, i’m continuing to attempt to fulfill my fantasy of becoming the next ina garten (sans the denim shirts) in my tiny ecuadorian kitchen. i wonder what she would say about my kitchen equipment…