Ecuador in a soup bowl

22/Mayo/2012 | 16:38


One year ago the New York Times ran an article featuring the proliferation of Peruvian chefs in Ecuadorian restaurants. Food writer Jay Cheshes, who visited some upscale restaurants in Quito, made an interesting observation:


“While Ecuadorean cuisine has not evolved much beyond its peasant roots — simple meat and potatoes still anchor most meals in the highlands around Quito — high-end food culture is more developed across the Andean border in Peru, perhaps thanks to that country’s diverse population, with particularly strong influences from Europe and Asia.”


Though the article perturbed some chefs it Quito, it is not wholly without merit. Ecuadorian cuisine indeed has peasant roots, just as Peru’s does. But the culinary tradition of Ecuador cannot be so easily dismissed as simply meat and potatoes, even in the highlands. And some aspects of Ecuador’s food are quite sophisticated.


Geographically, Ecuador, like Peru, is defined by Andean and coastal regions, as well as the Amazon Basin – sources that provide an ample supply of food products. And historically we can identify ancestral food traditions in Ecuador, which were enhanced by European influences going back 500 years. 


But Cheshes’s interest is most notably with Peru’s successful “high-end” gastronomy and its influence on the restaurant scene in Quito – one that, in truth, is quite limited.


Peruvian cuisine often dominates the culinary news of the Americas at the expense of other traditions that are not widely disseminated but are profoundly varied, perhaps even more so than those of Peru.


Why has Peruvian food been in vogue for the past 15 years, garnering international recognition while the cuisine of neighboring nations, like Ecuador, is virtually ignored on the world stage?


The reason for the hubbub has nothing to do with quality or variety.   Peru’s success is due to an intense and continual (and brilliant) promotional campaign in which approximately 2% of the country’s GDP is spent in the food sector, an overwhelming, national investment.


An Outside Perspective


“The state is selling massively the culture of the country,” says renowned, international chef Sumito Estevez, of Peru’s promotional efforts. Sumito, who appears on the Gourmet Channel and is co-founder of a culinary institute in his home country of Venezuela, says Peru’s success could not have happened without state sponsorship. He says 11% of the nation’s income is attributed to the food industry. 


Peru is the home of the annual, international gastronomic festival, Mistura. “They bring the nine top chefs of the world. They spend a lot of money and 300,000 people attend,” explains Sumito.   In fact, the number of attendees to the week-long event is almost equal to the number of workers, nationwide, in the restaurant sector, which has an estimated 66,000 restaurants. The success reflects Peru’s priority, says Sumito. “What interests them is a global presence.”


But positioning a country’s cuisine on a global level with state sponsorship only works if the country truly has something to offer. “Not every culture has a gastronomic culture so important that it can be sold,” Sumito says. But after four different visits to Ecuador he says without a doubt, “Ecuador has it.” And he offers some guidelines as to how Ecuadorian cuisine could achieve the same international reputation as Peru’s.


Regionalization & Products of Origin

“If you want to sell to the world your gastronomy as a cultural fact, it is very important that you can sell it as something specialized,” Sumito explains. “One condition that is very important is to have regional changes.”   He adds, “This is important in terms of marketing value because it talks of essence, of knowledge, of expertise.”  He offers France as a classic example, with butter from Normandy, mustard from Lyon, and wine from every region of the country.


Like France, Peru has a highly regionalized cuisine, with specialty dishes from at least nine commonly recognized regions within the country. And like Peru, Ecuador, too offers authentic culinary variations.


Chef Henry Richardson is one of many Ecuadorian chefs who has traveled throughout his country identifying culinary traditions by region.   “What I have done is separate Ecuador´s cuisine into 13 regions, mainly because of the ethnic groups that inhabited these areas.” 


Speaking just of the coastal provinces, Richardson explains: “Esmeraldas has an Afro-Ecuadorian blend - African roots mixed with Indians. Manabi was once very isolated. In Manabi you had a colony of Italians, of German people… They had more European influence in their cuisine and that is why it is such a different food from the rest. Guayaquil had an influx from abroad and the whole of Ecuador and they created a cuisine of their own. El Oro has a little influence from Peruvian cuisine. They had more contact with the North of Peru than with their own country.”


Regionalization works closely with the concept of products of origin. “To be able to internationalize a gastronomic concept it is important to have products that have an origin denomination. That is to say, only we have this product of this quality,” says Sumito.


Italy has its pasta, Spain has paella, Argentina: beef and Malbec. And Ecuador is not to be left out. The country’s geographical diversification also translates to a culinary one. This small country on the Equator has world renowned cocoa, world-class specialty coffee, select shrimps and prawns, and it is not only the banana capital of the world, but home to many tropical fruits, which are unknown to most other regions of the world. But these are not the only products of Ecuador, just some of the most well-known.


Sumito says that to really get people’s attention a country needs to focus on just one or two things when promoting gastronomy. For him, Ecuador has a tradition like few others which uniquely showcases its diversity of flavor: SOUP, which equates to nothing less than the national, culinary flag.


What it takes to internationalize a country’s cuisine

According to Sumito Estevez:

1.       State sponsorship

2.       Regionalization

3.       Products of Origin

4.       A national flag or culinary symbol



Soup – The National Flag


During his four visits to Ecuador Sumito has come to a conclusion, which he posted on his blog following his third visit to the Equator:

“Ecuador has the greatest variety of soups on the continent, and possibly the world.”  And he adds that each time he visits and asks someone what he should try, the response is almost always the same: “You have to try a soup, you have to go to the market and try such and such soup.”

A very important point for internationalizing a cuisine, says Sumito, is to identify one thing as a national flag around which the country can unify and hold up as a value.  

But don’t just take one famous chef’s word for it. Listen to what Anthony Bourdain, of the famed, “No Reservation” television program, had to say when he filmed an episode in Ecuador: “When it comes to food, in Ecuador, it is all about their soups and stews…Wherever you go you see some variation of caldo - stews or soups ranging from the simple to the complex, broth and meat, or fish, and other stuff, either a lot of other stuff or a little.”

Why is soup so important to selling Ecuadorian cuisine to the rest of the world? “With a soup you are selling the country, culturally,” explains Sumito. “Each time you are selling a soup you are selling your potatoes, your agriculture, you are selling a way of making things, you are selling flavors, you are selling the different products that you put in it.”


Sumito equates soup in Ecuador with arepas in Venezuela - their iconic, flat patties made of corn or flour. “Each time someone sells an arepa what is inside can be easily 100 different things. What is inside is what you are selling as a country…our way of eating meat, our flavor, and our ingredients. You always have to identify a flag that has regional possibilities.”


Though soup can offer a symbol around which Ecuador could begin to build an international campaign, Sumito cautions against trying to sell everything.  This is the hard part because Ecuador has hundreds of soup traditions, including locros, which are made of potatoes and sometimes include meat – probably what Jay Cheshes ate before he found the Peruvian restaurants in Quito.


And one locro in particular, the “yaguarlocro,” apart from containing meat and potatoes, is made with a product that is not so easily internationalized: dried goats blood. “It is impossible to sell that in any place in the world. It is an acquired taste,” says Sumito. “You have to be practical when it comes to defining values.”    


Coming Soon:

-          The Richness of Peruvian Cuisine

-          Segundo Muelle: The essence of Peruvian Gastronomy

-          Rescuing Flavors: Preparing to show the world Ecuador’s cuisine




Ciudad Quito

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