Food often reveals much about a culture. Ecuador, of course, is no exception, and one of the biggest adjustments for me has been getting accustomed to the cuisine. The diet is inherited from the Ecuadoreans’ Incan ancestors, and consists mainly of rice, potatoes, yucca, plantains, and bread – in other words, a lot of energy-giving starch to help keep stamina up at such high elevations. One consequence of the food and the altitude is that the people are, on average, fairly short; while I come in just under 5’4” I often tower over the locals.
You can also see the influence of Ecuador’s collectivist culture in the food. Within families there is a great sense of importance placed on mealtimes, and a great deal of implicit rules associated with the situation as well. It’s very important to offer food to a guest, and you need a strong will to refuse the great quantities of extra food that will be offered to you even after you’ve finished your heaping plate of rice. It’s practically scandalous to eat alone, and even if a family member isn’t hungry themselves they will come and sit with you to make sure you have company. Another interesting difference between Ecuador and the US is that here lunch is the biggest meal of the day, and in consequence dinner is often quite small or simply exchanged for a late-night dessert.
Recently I was in Megamaxi (Ecuador’s huge one-stop-shop for everything from clothes to food) with my host family when I said that I wanted to bake a pie for them. We were going around collecting the ingredients when I came across the aisle where the vegetable shortening was located. I wanted to buy some to make the pie crust, but as I was picking it up my host mom came over looking scandalized. She explained to me that vegetable shortening is what people with very little money buy because it’s cheaper than other kinds of fats. She called it unsightly, repeating many times, “es muy feo.” I agreed to use butter as a substitute, but the experience has stuck in my mind. It’s fascinating to see the associations that a culture builds around everyday objects, and the way that people signify their socio-economic position with something as basic as their food choices.
My current food-related preoccupation is to find a pumpkin for the pie, because there is no such thing as canned pumpkin in Ecuador. This weekend a fellow Oregonian and I will be preparing dinner and dessert for my host family, and sharing a bit of our own culture in the process.