As a vegetarian, the traditional foods in Ecuador and Peru presented a challenge, as they focus heavily on meat. The national dish of Peru is “cuy chactado,” or fried guinea pig. Most Peruanos and Ecuadorianos who live in the highlands raise guinea pigs in pens beneath their homes in order to have a ready supply of this delicacy, which is served for special occasions and on holidays. In one such home I picked up one of the fuzzy little creatures, which promptly crawled onto my shoulder and nuzzled my ear. After that, even if I hadn’t been a vegetarian, the idea of eating guinea pig would have been appalling, however I’m sure Hindus feel the same way about Americans who eat beef, so I make no judgments.
Fortunately, I discovered plenty of vegetarian choices, as well as seafood options, which I will eat if absolutely necessary:
In Cuenca I discovered a tiny little pastry shop that specialized in Alfajores, which consist of two or more layers of baked pastry, filled with either manjar blanco (a caramel-colored, sweet, creamy filling made with milk and sugar) or molasses.
The seafood on the coast of Ecuador was some of the delicious I’ve ever tasted. It is sometimes served with a “Maní” sauce, which is made from peanuts, another local staple. Maní was also incorporated into desserts and salad dressings, and each version was delicious.
Peru is famous for its Ceviche, which contains bite-size pieces of raw white fish marinated in lime juice and spicy chiles. The varieties are endless, but often contain giant steamed corn kernels, raw onion slivers, and boiled sweet potatoes (camote). I was fortunate to sample two of the more popular Ceviche recipes, as well as the traditional dishes of Tacu Tacu and Causa, when friends from Lima invited me to spend the day at their private club, the Rowing Club of Lima:
In Cusco, after a slow start during which I nearly starved, I discovered two restaurants that had delicious vegetarian cuisine, such as this Verduras Revueltas Cuscano (Cusco scrambled vegetables), which was made with 100% organic vegetables from local gardens and eggs from free-range chickens:
Potatoes originated in the Andes regions of South America. Today, an unbelievable 8,000 varieties are still grown in the Andes and the myriad shapes, sizes, and colors of potatoes available in local produce markets are absolutely mind-boggling. No surprise that much South American cuisine relies on this staple, such as this Papas a la Huancaína (Huancayo-style potatoes):
For the longest time I didn’t know what Habitas were; I just knew I craved them. Vendors would board the buses I rode around Ecuador and Peru, hawking plastic packages full of these popular snacks for what amounted to about 50 cents. I later learned that they are Fava beans, usually deep fried in peanut oil and then lightly salted:
Some days I was so hungry that I forgot to take photos of my meals before eating, so you will just have to take it on faith (without a mouth-watering photo) that visitors to Ecuador and Peru should also try the following:
- Guanabana juice, squeezed from a semi-ugly, bumpy globular fruit with milky white flesh. It’s absolutely exquisite
- Pan de Yuca (cassava): bread made from this starchy tuber is moist and full of good things for the body; I found this bread mostly in Ecuador. In Peru, cassava is used to make a soup known as Yuca chupe.
- Lúcuma ice cream, made from the exotic Lúcuma fruit that is almost exclusively found in Andes regions. Not to be missed.