Arroz By Any Other Name

would still be boring.

There is a little known fact that my guidebook conveniently left out about Ecuador. They have no cuisine. No taste buds. No spice. No variety of any kind whatsoever. They have the same meal three times a day, and every restaurant without exception sells not just an interpretation of that meal, but an exact mirror of it. Its as if every restaurant in Ecuador bought their menus from the same place. Its freaky.

And what is this meal? Chicken and Rice. Pollo con Arroz. A plate full of unseasoned white rice with a small piece of stewed chicken on the bone to the side, and a few spoons of menestra, a bland lentil or bean stew. Most of the time its served with a thin soup which is the only variety the plate ever has. Except you can choose to have beef instead of chicken, or fried fish. Thats it. As my traveling companion said, if it came down to eating chicken and rice one more time she would fast until her flight left. At the time, she wasnt to leave for three days :)

Ive traveled rather extensively through Mexico, and I am not at all concerned about eating at street stands and small stalls. Maybe I should be, but Im not. And so when I say there is no food to eat in Ecuador but Chicken and Rice I am not exaggerating. I mean, ok, occasionally someone boards the bus as youre flying through town at 80 KPH trying to mow down pedestrians and offers some homemade ice cream, which isnt bad, or some deep fried ripe plantains, which are ok too – but those can hardly provide your primary dietary needs. Compared to Mexico there is an absolute dearth of street food.

Contrary to what you read on practically every website out there, I found only 4 varieties of potatoes, all resembling either a tiny russet or a large new red potato. Having spent the last three weeks traveling from Guayaquil to Machala to Loja to Vilcabamba, then on to Zamora, Gualaquiza, Cuenca and Guayaquil again, I consider myself reasonably well traversed. Granted, I havent visited Quito or the Esmeraldas province, nor the deep jungles of the Oriente, but Ive been most disappointed by the food in the parts of it that I have visited.

The only bright spots so far:

Rum and Raisin home-made ice cream

Deep-fried ripe plantains

Pitahaya (imagine a giant prickly pear with sweet kiwi-like flesh) – of which I only had two. I had a terrible time finding them.

Batidos – juices whipped with milk and sugar to make various exotic milkshakes. Fairly prevalent in Guayaquil and Cuenca, less so in the other towns I visited.

Granadillas – Imagine a cross between a pomegranate and an egg. Its about twice the size of a chicken egg, orange skin with an egg-like shell, then inside it is full of seeds which remind me of small tadpoles. Really, its kinda gross the first time you eat them, but you get over that soon and the flavor is rather like a crunchy, orangey-kiwi. Of all of these things, I think these I will miss the most. But not so much that Id put up with Chicken and Rice at every other meal :)

Then there is the problem of trying to order coffee here. Mind you, I dont drink coffee but my parents are quite grumpy without it. Here, when you order coffee, you have two choices – cafe, and cafe con leche (milk). Ordering cafe nets you a cup of hot water and a jar of instant Nescafe. Cafe con leche nets you a cup of hot milk and a jar of Nescafe. I dont believe there are ten cups of coffee made in a day in all of Ecuador made that arent instant. My parents like coffee with a small amount of cream, and try as I might – and my spanish isnt bad – I simply could not convey that I wanted coffee with a small amount of cream on the side. Take this story as a case in point

In Gualaquiza, on the jungle side of the Andes, we were staying at a relatively nice hotel with a restaurant in the ground floor, so we decided to stay in and have dinner there. They had a glass box with various items I hadnt tried, a green-plantain ball, something sweetish wrapped in a banana leaf, and empanadas. I ordered one of each, and they arrived in due course. Meanwhile my parents decided they wanted two coffees, with un poco leche on the side. So I asked for that. Soon the chef shows up with the typical cup of hot water. 30 seconds later he shows up with a cup of hot milk, then asked if I liked the empanada. I said yes. 30 seconds later he shows up with another one then leaves.

Im willing to accept some of the blame for the miscommunications up to this point, but beyond this, its not just me. I call him back and say we wanted two cups of hot water. He says ok, so he brings me cup of hot water and gives Crystal (the other member of our party) a cup of hot milk.

30 seconds later someone else comes out of the kitchen with two more empanadas, hands them to us, and leaves. By this time Im afraid to order anything else, fearing Ill get another cup of milk and an empanada. Now Ill concede that we do things a bit differently than Ecuadorians – I mean, putting a bit of cream in our coffee is unheard of. They either make their coffee in milk or water, never both. But I have no idea how we got so many Empanadas.

Another example of one of those gaps in communication that there is no way I could have anticipated is hot water. Im familiar, since my travels in Mexico, with the idea of hot water being a prized commodity; generally made in black tubs on top of the roof, and only available in late afternoon. So I was pleased when, for our final hotel stay, the bellhop informed me that we had good Agua Caliente. Later that night, as we went to take a bath, we discovered that warm was a most charitable word for the water temperature. Tepid would have said it better. So the next morning, after suffering through a rather chilly shower, which Im not too fond of in general, I went to the front desk and inquired why we didnt have hot water.

And – Im not making this up – they asked me which floor I was on, I told them, and then whispered among themselves for a moment, walked around into a little closet behind the front desk, and I heard the *snap* of an electric breaking being turned on. Now how could I possibly have known to request that my floor have the hot water heater turned ON? I mean, really! Its not just me!

But Im cutting my trip short, only being here for about 3 weeks instead of the planned 7, due in part to the fact that my business needs me and in part to the fact that if I ever eat another plate of chicken and rice

One Response

  1. bath » Blog Archive » Arroz By Any Other Nameā€¦ Says:

    [] Mandy wrote an interesting post today onHeres a quick excerptLater that night, as we went to take a bath, we discovered that warm was a most charitable word for the water temperature. Tepid would have said it better. So the next morning, after suffering through a rather chilly shower, []

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Posted on April 28th, 2008 by Natnee and filed under Ecuador |

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