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I’ll admit it. My spring semester didn’t go as planned. But then again, in this crazy year of 2020, whose spring has? I thought I would still be in Ecuador during this time. I thought I would be learning Spanish, giving art classes to students, and spending time with my Ecuadorian host family. I thought I would be exploring the downtown of Cuenca or hiking through the highland terrain of Cajas National Park. But here I am, back home because a global pandemic had a different plan for my gap year.
Of course I am disappointed that my time in Ecuador was cut short, but I am also incredibly thankful to have spent the two months I did learning and growing in an international setting. And that growth hasn’t stopped upon returning home. It’s been different for sure, but I’ve tried to continue my path of learning through online Spanish classes and conversations with my Ecuadorian friends and family members. But most importantly, I’ve been keeping up my “studies” of Ecuadorian cuisine.
During quarantine, it seems cooking (and baking) has become the new favorite pastime of many Americans. I have never been a cook (unless you count peanut butter jelly sandwiches and scrambled eggs as cooking phenomena), but I decided there was no better time than a stay-at-home order to try something new. Ambitiously, I decided to recreate several of my favorite Ecuadorian dishes in my American kitchen.
Surprisingly, with help from my family, we accomplished the impossible: a somewhat authentic, astonishingly tasty Ecuadorian meal. I’ve included my adapted recipes; in case you’re interested or have the inclination to become an amateur Ecuadorian chef this quarantine. ¡Buen provecho!
Llapingachos: Potato pancakes
- 6 russet potatoes, peeled
- 1 white onion, finely chopped
- Typically, achiote is used, but I substituted 1 tsp cumin, ¼ tsp turmeric, and ¼ tsp paprika
- Around 1 cup of mozzarella cheese, shredded
- Salt and pepper
- Vegetable oil
- Flour, if needed
- Peel the russet potatoes and boil until soft.
- As the potatoes are boiling, add oil and chopped onions to a skillet. Cook until the onions are translucent and soft. Pro tip from my mom: to keep them from burning, add a little vegetable or chicken stock to the onions as they cook.
- Once the onions are soft, add the seasoning (cumin, turmeric, and paprika). This will create a refrito, or a “flavor base,” that is then added to the potatoes.
- Now, mash the potatoes until smooth and add in the onions.
- Once mixed, shape the potato mixture into small cup-like structures with a pocket in the center. Fill this pocket with cheese and cover with more of the potato. Once fully covered, shape the round ball into more of a patty shape. If the potato mixture is too crumbly, try adding some flour.
- When the patties are ready, cook them on a skillet until golden brown. This is probably the hardest step as the potato pancakes never really “firm-up.” However, we found that using canola oil and heating it up before putting the patties on the skillet makes the process a lot easier. Don’t be afraid to add a lot of oil!
- I like to eat llapingachos with avocado slices and curtido recipe included below, but lots of Ecuadorians eat them with salsa de mani (peanut sauce).
Curtido de cebolla y tomate: Onion and tomato salad
- 1 large red onion
- 6 tbsp lime juice
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 large tomatoes
- 5 tbsp chopped cilantro
- 1 tbsp salt
- Cut the onion into very thin slices (we used a mandoline slicer) and place in a bowl.
- Cover the onions with the tablespoon of salt and let it sit for about 10-15 minutes.
- After this, cover the onions with water and let sit for 10-15 minutes again. Rinse the onions and drain.
- Add the lime juice and a pinch of salt to the onions and let sit for 45 minutes. The onions should lose most of their acidic flavor.
- Once the onions are ready, cut the tomatoes into thin slices (again, we used a mandoline slicer to get them thin).
- Add the tomatoes, oil, and cilantro to the onion and lime mixture. Serve with the llapingachos and avocado slices.
Morocho: Ecuadorian sweet drink with corn
- 1 can white hominy corn (can be found at most groceries stores in the Mexican aisle)
- 6 cups milk
- 3 cinnamon sticks
- 1/3 cup sugar
- Place the can of hominy (after being washed and strained) into a pot. Add the milk and cinnamon sticks.
- Cook on low heat for about 3 hours, stirring every now and then.
- After 3 hours or so, add the sugar and cook for 30-45 more minutes. The more time simmering will increase the cinnamon flavor.
- Serve warm.
I have come home from Buenos Aires with a strong desire for one thing: choripán. The delectable dish consists of grilled or smoked chorizo sausage, perfectly crunchy bread, and toppings such as gooey cheese, lettuce, and coleslaw. My favorite place to grab choripán, apart from every other street corner, was a restaurant called Chori in Palermo Soho. No writing could possibly evoke my love of this restaurant, or the gourmet smoked chorizo and interesting sandwich combinations offered on the menu. If you’re going to Buenos Aires, Chori is life changing.
The list of mouth-watering foods I tried in Buenos Aires is extensive, but some of my favorites included alfajores, a cookie filled with dulce de leche; faina, a chickpea pancake; provoleta, a round of grilled provolone cheese; and empanadas, delicious pockets of bread filled with meat, cheese, or onions. The portions in Buenos Aires were as generous as the people in the city, which is to say very generous. Of course the steak and chimichurri were continual highlights at the dinner table; I once went to a restaurant that included three different kinds of salt to season a slab of tender meat with.
Apart from the food, which could merit a whole blog post on its own, I enjoyed walking around the very sizable, very warm city. I was not prepared for the immensity of the port city, nor the variety and distinct identity of every neighborhood within it. The neighborhood I lived in, called Palermo, was a decidedly hip and vibrant neighborhood, packed to the brim with fun coffee shops, brunch spots, bars, live music venues, and trendy shops. Recoleta, a nearby neighborhood, had incredible green spaces, historic street markets, museums, posh restaurants, and stunning French-inspired architecture. Puerto Madero had beautiful modern architecture, being the newest neighborhood in the city, with a sleek bridge outlining the shape of a woman dancing tango. Each neighborhood had a different intrinsic quality that separated it from other neighborhoods. I’m not sure I could say I got to know the entirety of Buenos Aires, but I did come to know small pockets the city allowed me to see. I could spend years discovering new things on new street corners in new neighborhoods, and never tire.
Of the small nooks I was able to see, I discovered lots of beauty, diversity, and history. I loved wandering the various street markets for locally produced goods such as paintings and maté cups. I loved touring El Ateneo Grand Splendid, a theater-turned-bookstore that took my breath away. I loved touring the Zanjón, a passage of underground labyrinths on the site of the first Buenos Aires settlement in 1536. I loved visiting the cultural center in Recoleta to watch dancers practicing choreography, or attend showcases of young local artists. One of my favorite experiences was going to La Bomba de Tiempo, a Monday night percussion-only concert. I never expected to dance in the rain until two a.m. on a Monday night, but these experiences are what gap years are made of!
I would be missing a key highlight of my experience in Buenos Aires if I didn’t talk about my time as an intern for Fundación La Alameda. La Alameda is a non-profit serving the community in Floresta, a neighborhood near the outskirts of the city. The organization has evolved from their beginnings as a soup kitchen to a multi-hyphenate project fighting against child labor, sweatshops, human trafficking, and much more. Their slogan, “Ni esclavos, ni excluidos,” translates roughly to, “Neither slaves, nor people excluded.”
On my first day as an intern, I was plunged straight into the La Alameda world. I was happy that they took me seriously as a young, American intern and entrusted me to translate a document on human organ trafficking from English to Spanish. It was certainly an interesting, albeit disturbing, first day, but I was eager to help make information on such an important topic available to a wider set of people. I worked on many translation projects throughout my 6-weeks in Buenos Aires, and also researched global public policy and laws surrounding human trafficking and prostitution, and conceptualized ways to apply similar practices in Argentina. I was also able to compile a spreadsheet of information on potential hot-spots of prostitution and human trafficking in the city. The office was small and I was the only intern braving the (at times suffocating) summer heat in the city, but I enjoyed spending time with my coworkers and the daily office maté break, the national drink of Argentina.
The most memorable experience for me in Argentina had to be my trip away from the city (however much I loved it!) to Iguazú. I was nervous to travel by myself for the first time, but the wonders of the Iguazú waterfalls, a UNESCO world heritage site spanning both Argentina and Brazil, outweighed any doubts I had. The photos I had seen online could not have prepared me for the enormity or power of the cataracts, comprising around 275 waterfalls. Standing at the edge of the largest waterfall, the “Devil’s Throat,” I was completely and utterly at a loss of words. The grey mist obscured the bottom of the falls and sprayed upward, shrouding the surrounding greenery and cliffs with mystical clouds. The roar of the water surged at a speed I could not have anticipated. Looking into the milky mouth of the waterfall I felt tiny and irrelevant in comparison; a small speck observing this beast of nature. The devil’s throat is certainly a well-deserved name. Later in the day, I took a boat ride through the Iguazú river, coming so close to the waterfalls that I could taste their spray. We were able to sail directly beneath one of the smaller waterfalls, completely drenching the boat and everyone on it.
In Argentina, I explored street art; took a tango class; attended the international student organization’s “American”, but not very American, themed parties; studied Latin-American art at MALBA; went thrift shopping on rooftops; learned about Argentine politics, notably about Peronism; and had an unforgettable solo venture to Iguazú in Argentina and Brazil. All of these adventures and discoveries elapsed over the course of a short six weeks, and Buenos Aires only allowed me a narrow glimpse into the happenings of such an enormous city. I’m excited to return and uncover new treasures and revisit the old.
I’d like to discuss something very close to my heart today: food. Senegalese food, to be exact. I promise you that each dish will leave you begging for the recipe– and you’ll want them all. Especially the street food one’s because street food is just so good here. And no matter how often Americans tell you to eat street food at your own risk, when you spend 150 CFA on a spaghetti, onion, and pea filling for your daily ½ a baguette, you will know that Senegalese food, quite simply, rules.
Walking down the street you’ll smell deliciousness before you can see it: small fatayas and beignets fried in oil; peanuts cooked in hot sand over a fire; and Senegalese-style eggs called “omelets” (fried eggs with onions and crushed-up bouillon blocks for spice). And then there are the foods you can’t smell: the frozen bissap in tiny plastic bags you get after school; the thiagri (cold yogurt with uncooked millet) before or after dinner; and the unknown fruits that you can’t wait to take a bite out of.
But remember! No walking and eating. What I’ve realized in Senegal is that the United States is really such a fast-paced society. In my small town of around 5,000, walking and eating is a no-go. You don’t do it, ever. Unless you want to face the wrath of your yai!
But while inhaling street food is in my nature, Senegalese meal time is not. That doesn’t mean I don’t love it, I just mean it’s different. At my house we sit around a large plate with raised sides,– essentially a huge circular casserole dish with another huge circular casserole dish flipped on top of it– and we all eat out of the same plate at the same time. Then, under the plate, there is a mat with a picnic-style blanket on top of it that serves to catch all the excess food that doesn’t reach your mouth fast enough. When lunch is ready you’ll hear “Kai! An!” which means come and eat lunch in Wolof. And when the plate gets put down on the mat, slowly the people will come. Your siblings, friends, and parents will dip their right hand in the water bowl, take off their shoes, and grab a spoon if there are any. Then the top plate is picked-up and the feasting finally begins.
During the meal though, there are a few incredibly important things you must remember.
First, and most importantly, your left hand cannot be anywhere near the food when you’re eating. Put it behind your back, hold it in the air, or cut it off, but whatever you do your left hand must not be seen close to the food. Outside of the US and Europe, the left hand is often used when you go to the bathroom in lieu of toilet paper. And in Senegal that’s what the left hand is used for. Even if someone hands you something while you’re not eating and you take it with your left hand, you should apologize. So eating with your left hand is definitely out of the question.
Second, you also better get used to having food thrown at you. Well, not exactly thrown at you, but gently tossed in your direction. Let me explain. When the food is placed on the plate, the rice goes down first, then the crispy rice in the middle of the plate, and then the fish and vegetables are put on top of the crispy rice. The vegetables change according to the season and right now (December), we usually have one carrot, one cabbage cut in two, a piece of squash, one potato, and two pieces of tapioca with fish and rice. Since we’re all sitting in a circle around the plate, you’re likely to only have one or two vegetables in front of you. That’s where the tossing comes in. The oldest women at the meal will usually eat with their hands and they will pass you the “good stuff.” Say you’re placed on the opposite side of the cabbage and you’ve been craving cabbage all day (I’m not joking it happens here!), the oldest woman will break you off a piece of cabbage and toss it in your direction. It’s tossed not placed because they are usually doing this for six to fourteen people at a time, and, I mean, they have to eat too!
Third, remember that even if you don’t like what has been placed in front of you vegetable-wise, it will be okay. The person dividing the food will learn what you prefer quicker than you think possible. At my house we have Chep bu Ghin (the dish I described above) for lunch about four days a week, and I always get passed pieces of carrots, potatoes, and cabbage, and I never get passed okra or fish. I’ve been getting the same thing for almost four months, and they always get what I enjoy eating right. And even if you’re not the biggest fan of a meal, I promise it will grow on you. Well, at least most of them. There’s always going to be that one meal that you dread (mine’s “Soup au Kanyay” or white rice with an oily fish and okra sauce on top).
Fourth, when you’re full don’t wait around. Put down your spoon or wash your right hand in the water bowl and head-out. I always head straight to my room to blow my nose and drink some water because our food is so spicy! People are usually packed around the plate like sardines, so if you’re sitting there not eating because you’re full, you are literally, at that moment, a waste of space. Get up and leave and allow your family a little breathing room. For example, today at lunch we were eleven around the plate, and, if people didn’t get up when they were full, I would have been so squished that I wouldn’t have been able to fit any food in me!
Finally, number five. Don’t worry that you won’t get enough food, I promise you will. You’ll probably get more food than you can eat as Senegalese culture pushes eating constantly and people will look at you disappointed when you say “Soug naa” or “I’m full.” Even when there are fourteen people around a bowl, there is always enough food. I swear it is impossible to go hungry here. No matter if someone you’ve never seen (and will never see again) comes by the house and asked for a plate of food by singing, you will still have enough. Even if five people stop by to drop-off bags of onions on their route and your yai says “Kai! An!” (which she will say to whoever shows-up around lunchtime), and they stay to eat, there will still be enough food. Let me be clear when I say that you will never be hungry here and both of these situations have happened to me. And I would suggest that in the unlikely chance you are hungry, go and buy something for yourself. Just trust me on this one. Because if you say you’re hungry, you’ll be having three dinners that night, and you’ll have to finish them all.
From Maffe, to Yassa Ginard, to Chep bu Ghin, to Chep bu Yapp, to Chep bu Nyibby, to Ndambe, and to all the other dishes, Senegalese culture is full of spice, heat, and (almost always) pounds of rice. And while in the US we complain about having to spend thirty minutes making dinner, Senegalese lunch starts being made around 11:00 and is finished at 2:30, when we eat it. But honestly, that’s what makes Senegalese food so good– you can taste the hours and care that went into making the meal. You can taste the delicately fried onions and fish; you can taste the scallions, pepper, and pink spice that were “dubb” or grounded in the mortar and pestle; and you can taste each morsel of rice that was steamed over than sauce than added to it. And I want you all to taste what I’m describing– I really do. But, unless you come to Senegal and stay for a while, I don’t think it’s going to happen. Because learning to “dubb” with both arms and how to identify what a sauce needs by smell alone are things a recipe can’t teach you.