Given the variety that defines Ecuadorean culture, art, geography, and politics, it would be logical to assume the country also offered a fair amount of culinary variety -- however, the typical cuisine nationwide relies heavily on potatoes, rice, and beans. Coastal cuisine differs most from that of the mountainous regions, with an emphasis on seafood, spices, and coconut milk. The major cities of Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca all have sophisticated dining scenes, with a range of restaurants serving contemporary takes on Ecuadorean classics and a host of international cuisines.
Meals & Dining Customs
Ecuadoreans tend to eat three meals a day, in similar fashion and hours to North Americans. Breakfasts tend to be served between 6:30 and 9am; lunch between noon and 2pm; and dinner between 6 and 10pm. Most meals and dining experiences are quite informal. In fact, there are only a few restaurants in the entire country that could be considered semiformal, and practically none require a jacket or tie, although you could certainly wear them in Quito's or Guayaquil's finer establishments.
Breakfast -- The typical breakfast in Ecuador is quite simple, usually anchored by scrambled eggs and potatoes or rice. Pancakes are often an option, though they might be oilier and crispier than the pancakes you're used to. Breakfast is often served with fruit, toast, corn tortillas, and coffee.
Sandwiches & Snacks -- Empanadas -- small, deep-fried pastries stuffed with meat or potatoes -- are ubiquitous. Tamales, a mixture of cornmeal, meat, and spices wrapped in banana leaves, are widely available, as are humitas, a similar preparation that's steamed in a corn husk. The filling for humitas also tends to be simpler, usually consisting of just the mashed corn, cheese, and perhaps some egg. Llapingachos are popular potato-cheese patties found all across the country. You can also get traditional sandwiches, often served on sliced white bread, as well as American-style burgers.
Soups -- Ecuador takes its soup seriously. Soup is served with almost every lunch and dinner, both at restaurants and in private homes. During Lent, Ecuadoreans make fanesca, a milky broth served with fish, green beans, lima beans, and a bean called chocho. On the coast, you'll find caldo, a general term for soup, which can be either aguado (water-based, thin, and usually containing meat) or caldo de leche (cream soup, usually with vegetables). Menestra is a thicker lentil stew often served with both vegetables and either meat or fish. Locro is a potato-cheese soup, and sopa de tomates con plátanos, tomato soup with plantains, is quite popular.
Meat & Poultry -- Ecuadoreans eat a fair amount of meat and poultry. Chicken and pork are the most popular, though you might encounter other meats you have not tried before. For instance, a common Ecuadorean delicacy is cuy, or roast guinea pig. You might even get to pick the pig you'll be eating. Cuy with potatoes is a common street food in the sierra region. Travelers should not order wild game unless they are certain it is farmed rather than hunted.
Seafood -- Seafood is often available inland, though it is most plentiful and best on the coast, where shrimp, lobster, and a variety of fish are always on the menu. The coastal region is famous for its ceviche, a cold concoction of fish, conch, and/or shrimp marinated in lime juice and seasonings. The marinade is said to "cook" the fish or seafood. Ceviche is a great treat for lunch or as an appetizer. Also be sure to try bollos de pescado, fish and peanuts wrapped in banana leaves.
Vegetables -- The potato is the king of Ecuadorean cuisine. It is eaten at almost every meal, and as snacks. But these aren't your basic Idaho Russets; you'll find over 200 varieties of potatoes in the Andean region, from tiny spuds no bigger than a peanut to larger varieties as big as a large orange, with colors ranging from yellow to brown to purple to blue. Chile peppers are used heavily, especially chopped and mixed with onion and salt to form salsa de ají, which is offered alongside most meals. Along with broccoli, palm hearts, cassava, and asparagus, you might come across malanga (also known as yautía), a starchy yam native to the tropics. Patacones, or fried plantains, are frequently served as side dishes on the coast.
Fruits -- Ecuador has a wealth of delicious tropical fruits. The most common are bananas, mangoes, papayas, and pineapples. Other fruits you might find include maracuyá (passion fruit), naranjilla (a cross between an orange and a tomato), and guanábana (soursop -- a misleading name), a sweet white fruit whose pulp makes for fabulous fruit shakes.
Desserts -- Ecuador doesn't have a very extravagant dessert culture. Bien me sabe is a coconut dessert native to the country. Flan, a custard, comes in coconut and caramel flavors, and tres leches is a very sweet, runny cake that almost falls into the custard category. All types of sweets and candies are available.
Beverages -- Most major brands of soft drinks are available, as are fresh juices (jugos) made with papaya, pineapple, mango, maracuyá (passion fruit), naranjilla (a cross between an orange and a tomato), or my personal favorite, tomate de árbol (tree tomato, a ubiquitous sweet-and-sour local fruit said to be good for the heart and for reducing cholesterol). Ask for them in milk (en leche) or water (en agua pura), and sin hielo (without ice) if you want to be extra sure you're not drinking tap water.
Unfortunately, it can be hard to find very good coffee in Ecuador, even though the country grows the crop natively, as most of the best beans are shipped abroad.
Water -- Do not drink the tap water in Ecuador, even in the cities, as disease-causing organisms are endemic. Ask for bottled drinking water (agua pura or agua purificada) at your hotel, and whenever you can, pick up a bottle of spring or purified water (available in most markets) to have handy. You also would do well to brush your teeth with purified water, or, just for the fun of it, with beer.
Beer, Wine & Liquor -- Ecuador's brewing industry is dominated by two companies. The first, known as the Cervecería Nacional on the coast and the Cervecería Andina in the highlands, makes the country's most popular beer, a pale lager called Pilsener. Clausen is similar, with higher alcohol content, and Club is a lighter, blonde pilsner. The competing company is the Cervecería Suramérica, based in Guayaquil. Their big brew is Biela, a pale lager, which some prefer to Pilsener. As far as I'm concerned, no one is ever going to pin a medal on these beers, but after a long day of hiking through the hot jungle or sierra, any one of them will hit the spot.
Decent rum can be found at moderate prices. Try Ron Castillo or Ron San Miguel (5 or 7 years).
If you want to expose your throat to something a little more painful, have a shot of aguardiente -- Spanish for "fire water" -- a strong spirit (60-100 proof, or more if it's homemade) made from fermented sugarcane and all but officially considered the national liquor of Ecuador. It's widely popular throughout the rest of South America as well.
No good wine is made in Ecuador, though quality bottles imported from Argentina, Chile, Italy, and France are available.
In the course of your travels you may have the chance to sample several traditional alcoholic concoctions. If you come upon Ecuadoreans in full fiesta, they may be drinking canelazo, a mixture of boiled water, sugarcane alcohol, lemon, sugar, and cinnamon typical of the Andean region. In some communities the traditional beverage chicha, made from fermented maize or cassava, is not complete until the person who is preparing it has chewed the ingredients and spit them back out. Make sure you find your chicha from a nonchewing source.
Other alcoholic beverages available in Ecuador include guarapo, also made from cane; anisados, liquor flavored with anis; secos, cheap and flavorless alcohol good for mixing; Espíritu del Ecuador, a fruity, golden liquor; and rompope, a Latin American version of eggnog, often bought pre-spiked with rum.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.