By Susan Birkenshaw
In the last 25 years, I have completely moved house 3 different times, established long-term winter homes in 2 countries and have been blessed to be able to travel to 70-plus countries. I am a passionate traveller and I eat almost anything put on my dinner plate (well, maybe not parsnips or bananas, go figure). In my recent move to Huatulco, Mexico, from Cuenca, Ecuador, my local favourites had to be revised again! Here are some of the things I have learned as my life shifts again.
I had to forget the notion that all Latin Americans love spicy foods. In Mexico and Ecuador, the level of “hot” is often very moderate. In Mexico it is common to see a variety of bottled hot sauces on the table in the local restaurants and on food carts. In Ecuador, there is always a bowl of ají (garlic sauce), which is homemade and includes common elements but is made to whatever original recipe the restaurateur received as it was passed down through at least two generations. Don’t ask – the recipes are NOT shared! You might be able to sweet-talk a small portion in a to-go cup. Even the dried red peppers are not readily available. In my 9 years in Ecuador, I never saw the mounds of peppers that we see in Huatulco. Also, in Ecuador, mortars and pestles were an exceedingly rare sight, so it was obvious that creating personal recipes for salsas and grinding small portions of spices were not common activities.
It seems that there are three common (and yet very different) things that arrive at each home table on a regular basis – soup, hot sauces and salads. Each of these is made to the matriarch’s specific recipe and rarely changes unless a couple brings their family recipes to a new union. Then things could be blended, experimented with and a new recipe created but I also have learned that often when family is involved, 3 different versions of soup or ají hot sauce could be on the table.
My first experience with ají was when we were at a local restaurant where we had made friends with the owner’s son. When we finally built up the courage to ask him about the ají he served, we learned that we could purchase some in a to-go cup but “No, we can’t give the recipe out because only Mama Maria knows the recipe!” With that he went on to explain that Maria is a 35+ year employee and all she does is make ají – the restaurant always hates when she takes vacation. “Nothing is ever the same!”
Unless prepared by a talented chef, Ecuadorian meals were mostly bland and uninspired. Hardly a fabulous cook, even I have learned how to create interest with unique flavours. Another difference between the foods of Ecuador and Mexico is how entrees are served. The side dishes in Ecuador are almost exactly the same every time; when ordering, you must clarify the options first or your plate will arrive with heaps of rice, fries (yes both!), cold mixed vegetable salad, possibly a small green salad. Then add your meat choice and the gravy that goes with it. Completely different from Huatulco – where it seems that separate steps are the way to assemble your meal in local restaurants, but don’t take this for granted – I am learning that lots of food appears to be a good thing at every meal. In my investigation of local cuisines, I have often fallen into the trap of trying to eat all the food that is presented to me. I know that it is a true shame to waste food, so I learned quickly to ask for half portions or to split any servings with my co-adventurer, Michael.
There is at least one exception to the uninspired character of Ecuadorean cuisine. I still swoon at the memory of the first locro de papas (potato soup) I ever tried. There are more the 2000 varieties of potatoes available throughout the Andes, and 50+ varieties of potato are cultivated and grown in this tiny country. It is hardly surprising that this soup is common throughout the country, and like the ají, every family and every family restaurant will serve you their version! It is really important to know that we may not like one version as much as another. The one I have included here is as close as I could get to my favourite.
For me, the real surprise came when I discovered how differently the locals in both countries treat greens and salads. What I have learned is that a salad could be anything from a mix of lettuce and leafy stuff to a chunky salsa type meal that includes tomatoes, onions, cheese, large kernels of corn (elotes in Mexico) and often handfuls of cilantro! Either way – add a small bit of good olive oil, lemon juice and call this a meal! Pico de Gallo quickly became my favourite “salad” with not one bit of boring lettuce in sight!
I am thrilled to read about new restaurants opening in Huatulco – seemingly on a daily basis – so many places to experience and so many new tastes to experiment with.
Ají de tomate de árbol
(Tamarillo (tree tomato) ají hot sauce)
Yield: about ½ cup
Note: It has been legal to import tree tomato fruit into the U.S. since June of 2018. Try Whole Foods or a Latin grocery store; the Latin grocery store might also have frozen tamarillos or pulp. If you still can’t find the fruit, consider using mangos, which will make a sweeter sauce.
- 4-5 tamarillos, fresh or frozen
- 2-3 ajís or hot peppers (serranos or chiles de árbol are good options, habaneros if you are very brave)
- 2 TBS finely chopped white onion
- 1 TBS finely chopped cilantro
- 1 TBS lime or lemon juice
- ¼ cup reserved cooking or plain water
- Salt to taste
1.Prepare the tamarillos. FRESH: Boil them for about 5 minutes, or until the skins split, to make it easier to peel them; remove tamarillos with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool. Reserve cooking water. Scoop out pulp. FROZEN: Defrost overnight in the fridge, then cut them in half and scoop out all the pulp. FROZEN PULP: Defrost; do not use the microwave.
2. Prepare the peppers: If you are boiling the tamarillos, add the peppers; otherwise, boil the peppers until soft; remove with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool. Reserve cooking water. Seed and devein the peppers if you want a mild ají. Save a few seeds if you want to change the heat when you’re done.
3. Put tamarillos and peppers in a small food processor or blender and mix until smooth.
4. Transfer the mixture to a small saucepan, add water (you can add more than ¼ cup if you prefer a more liquid sauce) and cook on medium heat, stirring until the consistency is a purée (5-8 minutes). Remove from heat.
5. Stir in the onion, lime juice, cilantro, and salt to taste.
6. Serve warm or cold.
Some recipes produce a creamier ají by substituting oil for the water. In Step 4, only use enough water to keep the purée from burning. After you remove the pan from the heat, add up to ¼ cup oil (avocado works well); you can blend it again to emulsify the oil (optional). Proceed to step 5.
Tomatillos have a lot of pectin, so if you refrigerate the hot sauce, it will turn to gel. Just drop it back in the processor/blender and add a little water or oil. Blend until the consistency is what you want.
You can also add chochos (lupini beans, or any large white bean) to give the sauce some protein.
Ecuadorian potato and cheese soup (Locro de papa)
Yield: 10 servings
- 10 medium potatoes, mix of red and yellow, peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 TBS extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced in ½ inch pieces
- 3 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp achiote powder (ground annatto seeds) powder (substitute: ¼ tsp turmeric, ½ tsp sweet paprika, pinch of nutmeg)
- 7 cups of water
- 1 cup of milk or more
- 1 cup grated or crumbled cheese (quesillo, queso fresco, mozzarella or Monterey jack)
- Salt to taste
- Crumbled queso fresco or feta cheese, or shredded
- Chopped cilantro and green onions
- Avocados, sliced or diced
- Ají hot sauce
1. In a Dutch oven or large heavy pot, heat the oil over medium heat and add the onions, garlic, cumin, and achiote powder. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are just brown along the edges, about 5-7 minutes.
2. Add the potatoes, stir until they are coated with the onion-spice mixture, and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring every couple of minutes.
3. Add the water and bring to boil. Reduce heat and cook until the potatoes are very tender (15-20 minutes).
4. Use a potato masher to mash the potatoes in the pot until most of the potatoes are incorporated in the creamy soup but some small chunks remain.
5. Turn the heat down to low, stir in the milk and let cook for about 5 more minutes. You can add more milk if the soup is too thick.
6. Add the grated cheese and cilantro, mix well, and remove from the heat.
7. Add salt to taste and serve warm with avocados, scallions, cheese and hot sauce.