When it comes to foodie capitals, Quito may not be up there with Lima and Mexico City, but it is coming on strong. Chefs from Ecuador are finding ways to update the traditional recipes of the Andes and are making good use of their abundant riches sprouting up from the ground and on trees. On my last trip to Quito, I wanted to dig a little deeper, so I went on a gastronomy walking tour with one of the chefs from Casa Gangotena, the luxury hotel facing Plaza San Francisco.
Casa Gangotena offers their guests a walking gastronomy tour to get a feel for what goes into typical local dishes and then see how they end up on the plate. A morning walk with one of the hotel restaurant’s chefs goes the opposite direction of the tourist district and visits local shops and markets where the locals go to do their shopping. Those interested in the whole process can go back afterwards and help cook lunch. Or you can do what I did and just show up for meal time later.
If you browse tours of Ecuador, you see a lot of food-focused hacienda tours and tours that are all about the food, often with a chocolate, cheese, or coffee angle. Ecuador is a real cornucopia of food. With rich volcanic soil, few desert areas, and an altitude that goes from sea level to snowy summits, it’s a good spot for growing most anything. (Except wine grapes, apparently. I’ve yet to find a decent wine from anywhere north of Peru.)
The bounty is on display when you walk to the markets of Old Quito. We passed one shop selling nothing but bananas, though chef Andres confirmed what I’d heard from another chef: bananas are considered peasant food in Ecuador, so the chefs won’t touch them for their desserts. The other berries and fruits we saw stacked elsewhere are a different story, from apples to blackberries to tropical fruits. This being the region where potatoes originated, you see a dozen kinds in the market stalls.
We also stopped by an herb shop where some sold are used for cooking, others for fixing whatever ails you. People visit these shops like they would a pharmacist, asking what to throw in an infusion to deal with stomach pains, a headache, or a lack of virility. Down the block from the market is a sort of in-town mill, Molinos de San Martín. The machine in the back room grinds grains into flour and sells it in bulk, from whole wheat flour to blue corn meal to quinoa flour. They also sell the traditional blocks of gooey raw sugar used in many households.
At the end, we sampled sweets from two sugar shops. Colaciones de la Cruz Verde, pictured above, makes one single kind of traditional candy, cooked in a swinging giant bowl over a charcoal embers. The other was a show selling all kinds of candy-coated treats, from nuts to popcorn to fava beans. They were so good I ended up returning there a few days later for more.
In the afternoon we sat down to a multi-course lunch, starting with an array of traditional local finger foods, salsas, and cheese dressed up by Gangotena’s chefs. Then we graduated to soup and a delicious giant prawn main course. “We fly in the seafood, Andres explained earlier, and the meat we contract directly through farms we trust. What we buy locally is mostly produce and spices.”)
Each bite of the meal made a little more sense after the morning’s tour and the background information from the chef. If you have some time in Quito to learn more about what you’re eating, this low-key walking tour is a great way to get below the surface of historic Quito—and what’s on your plate.
There’s a charge for this tour, but it’s minimal. To make a reservation, contact Casa Gangotena in Quito.