Dining out on Ecuador food in the region's northern climes like Imbabura province is for the most part pretty simple and uniformly the same. You'll get a hearty serving of rice, corn, beans, hominy, maybe French fries and meat.
Whether it's served in a restaurant, a tiny eatery or from a street vendor's cart, the food choices can be quite limited.
In many restaurants, the lunch special or menu del dia used to be incredibly cheap, $1 or $1.50, but prices have increased. As more restaurants, both expat and Ecuadorian, appear on the scene and charge higher prices, the other local restaurants follow suit. But there are still good "menu of the day" meals for $2.50. Virtually every Ecuadorian restaurant has a menu of the day, so make sure you ask what it is.
These traditional Ecuador food lunch specials can still be heavy on the starches, with fish, a thin slice of beef or chicken (pechuga de plancha) and a bit of salad or cold vegetables for the main course, which follows a big bowl of soup. Then there's dessert and a drink, often fruit juice.
But the new restaurants have introduced much more variety, more vegetables and salads into the choices we have for meals out.
Cotacachi has some upscale restaurants that serve really good cuts of beef and delicious fish. For a real treat there's always the 5-star dining experience at La Mirage for around $45 -$50 each.
The influx of foreigners has brought much more international fare to the restaurant tables. Pizza, lasagna, stir fry, hamburgers, meatloaf, Chinese food, and other international dishes are regularly served. Most middle of the road type restaurants in Cotacachi have a good selection of sea food and fish such as shrimp, sea bass, tilapia and trout, and it is virtually all delicious.
And when I get a craving for something I can't readily buy or order in a restaurant, I find a recipe and make it myself. I end up with unique Ecuadorian-style recipes of my own.
I've had fun incorporating Ecuadorian spices and unusual fruits and vegetables into my tried-and-true favorite recipes. We've also made a few Ecuador food videos of my recipes and those of others who also like to adapt their recipes to local ingredients. Ever heard of uvilla cobbler? It's out of this world and the easiest dessert in the world to make.
It's always a thrill to go to the markets on market day, which varies from town to town. Cotacachi's market day is Sunday and the place is packed with country people from villages and farms, sometimes a furniture maker or flower vendor from nearby towns. We can stock up on fresh eggs, spices, buy a woven reed mat, fresh meat and fish, fresh juice and a local sweet of figs and cheese in a bread bun.
A few years ago, an indigenous market was opened by UNORCAC just a half block below the regular market which provides an outlet for local farmers to sell their mostly organic produce. In this market, the early bird get the best selection.
In addition, two Thursday markets have sprung up that feature a variety of artisan meats, cheeses, home made breads, sprouts, and produce.
One is located at the Solid Rock Plaza on 10 de agosto, the other at San Francisco Plaza near Banco Pichincha. Gary is now selling produce from our farm at this market.
Another great and very popular addition to our food choices is L&S Artisanal Meats. A young American couple, Shaun and Lindsey, are producing and selling pork, pork and chicken sausages such as brauts and spicy Italian sausages, smoked chickens and hams, ground beef, sauces, sauerkraut, and more. Their pigs are raised inhumanely on clean rotated grass pastures. Shaun and Lindsey sell their produce at the Thursday San Francisco market.
The market food in Ecuador is so plentiful, vibrantly healthful and inexpensive that I feel like a queen feasting at a royal banquet all the time, so I prefer to eat at home. Every morning I have to make a difficult choice.
What exotic fruit do I want in my smoothie? There's papaya, mango, pineapple, uvillas, tomate de arbol, guanabana, taxo, granadilla.
And of course all the regular fruits like bananas, watermelon, cantaloupe, every kind of citrus imaginable, grapes, strawberries, blackberries and apples. A seemingly endless list of succulent flavors awaits me.
The Cotacachi markets offer a good variety of vegetables, too, but I don't see Brussels sprouts, artichokes, string beans or eggplant. We are now growing our own brussels sprouts and artichokes on our 10 acre farm near Cotacachi.
Traditional Ecuador food also means unusual snacks. Kids flock to buy little plastic bags filled with chochos, sliced onions, tomatoes and aji, a garlic sauce. Restaurants serve popcorn and savory banana chips or small bowls of salty fried corn kernels called "tostada" as an appetizer. In season, you can munch on snails in their shells and fried grubs and beetles. Ice cream treats are extremely popular.
UNORCAC is an indigenous organization that among other things, has promoted organic farming practices for several decades. Gary and I went on one of their tours and visited several farms that are now growing different vegetables to increase nutrition.
Some expats are raising their own organic food, too.
Gary and I have planted our first crop on the ten acres we purchased this year. Rows of chochos are coming up, along with several other kinds of beans. We have dived right in to learning about local gardening techniques, such as the Three Sisters, companion plantings of corn, beans and squash.
Ecuadorians still often grow medicinal herbs in their gardens, providing a green pharmacy right at their finger tips and flavorful accents for meals.
While wheat, rice and barley are familiar grains to most of us, quinoa and amaranth are more unusual and also very nutritious grains grown in Ecuador. Quinoa used to be grown on farms in the area, but not in recent years. There is now a resurgence of quinoa production by both indigenous and expat farmers. Quinoa is one of the most highly nutritious foods in the world.
All in all, you can't beat the abundance of Ecuador food and the quality and variety is increasing all the time.