Countries from South and Central America have been setting culinary trends recently and now Ecuador is making the running.
Ecuador is a small country, wedged between Peru and Colombia, on the North West coast of South America, and gets its name because it's situated right on the equator. Despite its size, it produces high quality fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood products reflecting its geographic diversity - the mountains of the Andes, Pacific coast and Amazonian jungle. As a result, there's a rich culinary tradition including pork, chicken, beef, goat and guinea pig from the Andean region and fish and seafood from the coast. In the Amazon, cassava is used in many different ways, even used to make a bread called Pan de Yuca.
I'm at London's Corinthia Hotel to taste the flavours of Ecuador, prepared by Chef David Reyes, and am handed a warm Canelazo - Naranjilla juice, cane spirit, sugar, with a cinnamon stick inserted. It looks murky, but that's just the colour of the juice, and it tastes like the Ecuadorian equivalent of German Glühwein. Accompanying it are slices of rare tuna on guacamole toast and Bolons, cheese stuffed green plantain dumplings, served with a tomato and spring onion salsa. As an introduction to the culinary traditions I'm immediately impressed.
Next we're led into the private dining room and I can't resist nibbling the plantain crisps, or Chifles, laid out on the table. It's explained that we should have Ecuadorian wine, but there's been a hiccup at customs so we have to settle for the Uruguayan equivalent. It's a shame because when we get a sip from the one bottle of red that's got through, it seems rather good. The starter is prawn and palm heart Ceviche - the marinade is lime juice, tomatoes, onions, orange juice and coriander and I crumble the plantain crisps on top. Ecuador is one of the leading prawn exporters and also the largest palm heart supplier in the world and this dish is an excellent showcase of these products.
Surprisingly, the main course is 100% vegetarian but none the worse for that. It's a Quinotto, a sort of risotto made with Quinoa rather than rice. This grain thrives at altitude and is a staple in the Andean countries of Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. It's been labelled a superfood because of its high protein content and I watch as David Reyes first fries onion and garlic in olive oil, then adds the Quinoa and vegetable stock. Over low heat he keeps stirring until the grains become transparent then adds chopped butternut squash and parsley.
Earlier he's fabricated Quinoa balls from cheese, mushroom, potato, flour, egg and bread crumbs and these, along with roasted tomatoes, broccoli and cheese dressing, are added to the creamy Quinoa base. Healthy it certainly is, and the sweetness of the vegetables compliment the slightly bitter flavour of the grain. On this showing I can certainly understand why 2013 has been designated "The International Year of the Quinoa" by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.
Dessert is a flourless chocolate pudding, made from Ecuadorian cocoa beans, with caramelised banana slices and served with physalis ice cream. An extra touch is the toffee physalis berry still with its crinkly leaf shroud and there's extra chocolate sauce just in case it isn't rich enough already. Follow this with strong coffee and you have an excellent meal.
On the basis of flavours I taste during the evening then I really do think that the culinary traditions of Ecuador are ripe for an international audience. At the moment there's nowhere in London where you can sample this kind of food, even though there are a number of Peruvian and Colombian outlets. The only other option is to visit the country and taste Ecuadorian food on its home turf - I await the invitation.
Pro Ecuador has more information about the country and its products.
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