Walking through the supermarket with my camera, I surreptitiously managed to take several shots. I say surreptitiously because management definitely would not approve. If you’ve read much of this blog before, you already know that most businesses here in Ecuador are highly protective of their information, and that includes pricing and products. Anyone seen gathering such information purposely would be highly suspicious…why, I don’t know. Do you?
One food handling practice that constantly pokes me in the eye is the eggs. Eggs are not refrigerated in Ecuador-not ever, not anywhere.
Even on the coast, where temperatures average in the 80s and 90s, you’ll find eggs on the supermarket shelf without cooling, eggs in the local store, eggs in the corner market, all just sitting out. And even if you buy eggs from the big producers, who do run egg farms, they still stamp them with dates that are 30 days out! Incredible, and I say it doesn’t work. I often get eggs which have 30 days on the “use by” label, and upon cracking them, the yolks immediately break, a sure sign of an egg which is not fresh.
Wines (and liquors) are expensive here and became extremely expensive a few months back, when Correa, Ecuador’s president, implemented some draconian import duties on most everything to save the country from running out of hard currency-the dollar, that is. Ecuador was importing far more goods than it was exporting, and so of course the dollars to pay for those imports were leaving the country faster than they were coming in. Once we put this crisis behind us, duties may come down again and some items might, just might, approach reasonable again.
On the other hand, bananas are cheap, and I mean so cheap, they’re almost giving them away. As the world’s largest exporter of bananas, it should be that way.
And these are high end bananas-you can find them cheaper elsewhere. You can buy pineapples on the roadside for as little as 3 for $1, sometimes less in the growing zones. You’ll see bananas, the defective ones, sometimes piled high in the back of a truck or on the side of the road-they’re used to feed the cows. However, these are not the Cavendish variety that are exported.
Of course, most of the time the bananas you find are not the blemish-free, spotless, even-colored ones we are accustomed to in the US. All the perfect ones get shipped abroad. I wasn’t able to confirm the current price for the 43 pound box of bananas that are the standard for shipping to the US and Europe, of the Cavendish variety, but it seems to be around $5.25 a box, and was recently as high as $11-$12 due to heavy rains in other parts of the world that decimated banana crops.
Plenty of chocolate fills the supermarket shelves, but not a whole lot of it is world-class, nor is much of it consumed here. Caoni has now taken up the majority of shelf-space in the chocolates section, next to Nestle, a few other mass market imports, and other sweets. Caoni has first-class packaging that belies what is to be found inside. It’s produced by Tulicorp, a local processor of cacao based in Guayaquil. Hearsay has it that one of the main investors behind it is Pronaca, Ecuador’s largest poultry, pork, and general mass food processor.
The rest of the mass market chocolates are either locally produced or imported from Colombia, and most contain vegetable fats and hydrogenated oils but no real cocoa butter. As far as appreciation for chocolate goes, most Ecuadorians think chocolate is chocolate. Per cents mean nothing to most consumers, and where it comes from-who cares? As long as it comes in a pretty package, is cheap, and there’s a good amount, most local consumers are happy.
While there is still plenty of basic home cooking going on and the pace of life is much slower here than in the so-called industrialized world, Ecuadorians love their instant soup mixes too. And soup, being part of the daily lunchtime ritual, is a highly popular item. Nestle again dominates the market here, under its Maggi brand of soups and condiments.
Finally, Ecuadorians are very big on cheese and dairy items. Locally made cheeses are abundant and the most popular kinds are fresh cheeses which keep only a few days after being opened and cannot be aged. There is also a Swiss contingent that has been here for decades, that produces a decent Gruyere, among other cheeses. Variety is thin, not the hundreds of regional cheeses like those found in France; there are no more than a dozen or so different types. Imported cheeses are costly as import duties are in place to protect local industry. Almost all dairy products here, especially the fresh ones, have a rich, deep flavor-probably because all the cattle here is free-roaming and grass-fed.
Cream and milk is most commonly purchased in UHT boxes; Nestle also seems to have major control over this sector. Fresh milk and cream can be spotty in quality; because Ecuador’s dairy cattle are almost purely grass fed, flavor and fat content tend to vary depending on the time of year. Also, fresh products are not homogenized so you often get fat separation.
Empanadas are one of Ecuador’s most ubiquitous, and of course popular, foods. You can find them in small shops along most streets, on street corners, and in almost any Ecuadorian restaurant both high and low-budget. Occasionally baked but usually fried-made even better by the use of fresh lard-they come in a variety of flavors.
Sunday we stopped at this little empanada-only shop in San Rafael, a suburban but bustling town just outside of Quito. My mother-in-law had recommended this place; they have two locations, the other is a few miles away in another part of town. All they sell here are empanadas, sodas, and beer. They come in several flavors, but the most common types here are made of plantain dough, which is made with fresh plantains and flour, or with a type of white corn called morocho, filled with just a bit of ground pork and peas.
“Old Country” Empanadas
Ecuadorian Hot Sauce AKA Ají in Spanish.
White empanada on left made of morocho or corn, on right, Chilean style empanada.
Our son Sebastian enjoying his cheese and plantain empanada and a Fanta.
Daily empanada list-corn, chilean style with meat, chicken, napolitan (cheese, tomato, oregano, and salami), cheese, plantain, and mejid-cheese and sugar in plantain dough, a sweet/salty mix.
Inside the shop.
These are just observations gathered from a number of people, not necessarily all my own, and not judgments about the country, its people, or its culture.
I´ll try and cover these as best as I can in detail in future posts and explain the who, what, where, when and why behind these observations.
These are observations, and not meant to be judgments about Ecuador’s people, country, or culture.
I’ll go into as many of these as I can, in detail, in future posts.
I love the rag-tag, gritty, miserable looking circuses that travel the megalopolises and small towns and villages of Latin America. It’s been a while since we’ve seen one, but there’s one just down the street now. It’s called Circo Azteca. This was not Cirque du Soleil; in fact, it was the poorest circus I’ve ever seen, but entertaining nonetheless. My last few experiences in Latin American Circuses were better. I saw the Hermanos Gasca circus in Nicaragua, and became a participant when the Gaucho from Argentina decided I’d be the perfect candidate to demonstrate his skill with bolas, a traditional weapon consisting of two rock hard balls attached to the end of a leather strip, which are spun around at high speed. These he used to knock a cigarette out of my mouth, as they swung past my face within a hair’s breath of my nose.
We bought our tickets early, $2 each for front row seats. I guess you could equate the quality of the circus with the price of the tickets, though in my mind, this little flea circus “Circo Azteca” was just about as entertaining as the multi-media, overwhelm-your-senses Barnum & Bailey’s productions they do nowadays. They just didn’t have big screens, didn’t hold it in a major sports arena, and didn’t have massive lights, noise, and colors going on for $85 or more. They also held it in a vacant lot near the center of town. Next to the small sawmill on the lot they were growing some tomatoes among construction debris and trash-I found this little urban patch rather enterprising.
Since there is not a lot of internet access in private households (and not a lot of regulation) the traditional advertising vehicle was parked just out front, with loudspeaker securely attached to the roof. There are no police to stop you from blaring whatever message you’d like to from loudspeakers attached to your car, so this is a pretty frequent means of advertising throughout Ecuador.
Next to the trailer and parking area was the ticket window.
The floor was the grass of the vacant lot, and the seats were cheap patio chairs made of plastic like the kind you can pick up at your local Wal-Mart. The tent was full of holes and missing stitching in many places.
When we got inside just past the guy collecting our tickets, another man stopped us and told us we’d be undercharged and we needed to pay another $2. Wonderful customer service. We didn’t have much choice but to pay up; there wasn’t a manager or anyone to complain to. The whole circus might have had 15 employees in total.
There were only three main acts of any kind of major skill. These included a man who knotted himself up and down a giant sheet hanging from the circus tent, a girl who did all kinds of things with hula hoops, and a woman who balanced barbie dolls, umbrellas, and other things on her chin.
The whole show was 2 full hours, even though it started a half hour late. The circus clowns joked about planning to move on to Bogota, Colombia for their next show, but not having enough money to do so just yet. I can believe it.