How do you rescue Ecuadorian cuisine? Find it and give it away

18/Octubre/2012 | 17:18

By Lance Brashear

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Do you think you know something about Ecuadorian cuisine?  If you are Ecuadorian, then you know what you grew up eating, and if you are a visitor you may know what the general offer is in the city’s restaurants.  But chances are you really don’t know much.

In a typical gastronomic tour of Ecuador, as offered by many restaurants and cooks, diners are not often served aged cheese aromatized with spices, unless they visit San Miguel de los Bancos.  And coroncho, an endemic fish, is generally absent from the menu unless you are in Puerto Quito, Zamora, or Pastaza where it is commonly consumed in broths and soups. 

 Only in Patate, near Baños in Tungurahua Province, can you taste the local, emblematic, grape chicha accompanied by pumpkin arepas.  While in Pujili, locals have been making a French-style pate served over hot hominy for more than 300 years.

These dishes are not only part of the richness of Ecuadorian cuisine, still undiscovered by many, but their “re-discovery,” is the objective of “Rescate de Sabores” (Rescuing Flavors), an investigative program sponsored by the University of the Americas (UDLA) that is laying the foundation for culinary and gastronomic tourism in Ecuador.

Carlos Gallardo, President of the Chef’s Association of Ecuador and Director of the School of Gastronomy at the University of the Americas in Quito (UDLA), has been directing the “Rescate de Sabores,” program for the past five years, traveling to each of Ecuador´s 24 provinces to re-discover local culinary traditions.

International Cuisine

Gallardo´s work, done together with fellow chef, Mauricio Armendaris, is part of a long-term vision to internationalize Ecuadorian cuisine.  

“The project looks to rediscover and diffuse traditional food of Ecuador and the products that are most representative of the different regions, pursuing a firm dream to convert the country into a culinary, tourism destination,” Gallardo says.

Initially, it sounds like they are jumping on the bandwagon of Ecuador’s southern neighbor, Peru, which launched a successful campaign beginning 15 years ago to internationalize their cuisine.  But one thing separates Rescate de Sabores from anything Peru has done.

“The investigation is what is going to make us different,” says Gallardo.  “We are a university and we dedicate ourselves to investigation.”  UDLA has financed $200K in research over the past five years.

Two Guys, Two Hats

Though the focus is investigation, the end result is commercialization.   Gallardo and Armendaris draw a clear line between the two.  

Gastronomy is the commercial exercise of a food product.  Culinary is the knowledge, the cultural knowledge, of those products,” explains Armendaris.

As Director of the School of Gastronomy, Gallardo says that laying the culinary foundation is necessary to build the gastronomic complex that should follow.  “UDLA believes that the future of Ecuador, in our area, is tourism…our concern is culinary tourism.” 

Where to Begin – Have a party!

If Ecuador is to convert into an international culinary and gastronomic destination, food must be an inseparable part of the tourism experience.  Gallardo asks you to consider the amount of revenue generated by Carnaval in Brazil or Mardi Gras in New Orlenas.  “The parties are a reason for the tourists, internal and external, to go.  You go to the celebration, stay in a hotel, eat, and generate tourism.”

Recognizing that food is perhaps the common denominator in all celebrations, one of the first publications by Gallardo and his team was “Fiestas and Flavors of Ecuador,” a comprehensive look at food and celebration in Ecuador.  “We discovered in one form or another that…Ecuador has more than 620 festivals.  I have documented the 60 principal ones,” He adds that though the celebrations are not the main focus of the project, “we had to begin with the most pleasant part for the tourist.”

The product, not the recipe

Culinary tourism begins with the raw materials – the food products.  Regionalization is based on regional products.

“You cannot say that ceviche is from Guayas Province,” says Armendaris.  “Just like in France you cannot say that bouillabaisse pertains to a region in France…you use the product as the axis of investigation, which is what we do.”

He offers another example, ripe for the current season in Ecuador.  “What do you do when your colada morada recipe is without the prime material, the mortiño, which is an Andean blueberry that is found only in certain regions of the high plains and grows between 1,300 and 1,700 meters?... I don’t want to worry about the recipe.  The recipe is on paper,” says Armendaris.  “In the long run, the cultural content is what you have to protect, not the récipe.”

It must be local

With the focus on the product, Gallardo says culinary tourism becomes local. “Starting from this principle, we have to define Ecuadorian cuisine by product, define it geographically, so the combination of both is sustainable.”

He elaborates with examples:  “Yucca from Morona Santiago, grown in Morona Santiago, generates a yucca tamale.”  And, it gives employment to Morona Santiago.

“What we cannot do is stop being sustainable,” adds Armendaris.  “Who benefits if you have a fava bean locro récipe if there is poverty in the Province of Chimborazo where the fava beans originate?  If you do not have the scientific knowledge to know how to maintain the cultivation of fava beans in the Andean zone how do you ensure that the consumer-producer relation for this product remains a balanced relation?”

Discovering the truth

So how do they do it?  How do they investigate Ecuadorian cuisine? “It may seem strange to you but for the moment, we are not interested in talking to chefs,” says Gallardo. 

He says he has more than 600 locro recipes. “They are not my recipes.  They are recipes from the people in the towns that tell them to me.”  But the recipe is the very last step in their methodology.

“Before I ever get to the kitchen, I see the product, I see the markets, they tell me how it is, I have it all very clear.  I investigate like crazy about what they are going to show me.”

One of the first things Gallardo does anywhere is talk to the local historian.  “The historian gives me the scientific base.”

Next, he visits a market.  “If they tell me I am going to find the famous yucca tamales, but I go to the market and find no yucca…then what are they talking about?”

And if the yucca is in the market, Gallardo then seeks out the yucca farmer.  He follows the entire chain of production, backwards.  Once he reaches the point of origin, he then jumps back, or forward, to the final stage: cooking, which is not always simple.  He says most people do not want to share recipes with him.

 “It is a process to convince them to show me.  I watch, I record.  As a chef, I know what they are doing,” says Gallardo.  He then takes that back to his kitchen at UDLA and reproduces it. 

Once the recipe is reproduced, it has to be made readable by all.   I am trying to transcribe them to an international language. Where do you see a cucharadita?” he asks.  “We are using the metric system.”  Additionally, they detail the nutritional properties of the recipes and the critical control points.

“The principal criticism of Ecuadorian food is that it is not served sanitarily,” Gallardo explains. “Here are the conditions so that when a person prepares a recipe, they see the nutritional properties, they care for the sanitary guidelines, they do not kill the person they are serving.”  

Yes, avoiding manslaughter is a good objective to have.  

But when all is said and done and investigated and documented, can you really get the Señora in the pueblo to follow your guidelines?  You have a good chance if you do one thing:  give it away.

“The next step is that we are going to begin to diffuse, without cost, to hotels, restaurants, and chefs, what it is they could do [with Ecuadorian food],” says Gallardo. 

To date, Rescate de Sabores has given away 10,000 books and have made their publications available for free download on the Internet, with more than 100,000 downloads registered. To download a copy of the newest publication by Rescate de Sabores, “Chefs del Ecuador,” with great local recipes, go to the home page of


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