The Culinary History of Ecuador: Traditions of New World Gastronomy

Fruits at the Iñaquito market

Without the modern convenience of refrigerators and stoves, cooking was a labour intensive and time consuming chore: water and firewood had to be collected, perishables bought on a daily basis, foods preserved, cured, and stored. For women belonging to the upper stratum, the duty was handed to domestic servants, often a troop in size. As American diplomat Friedrich Hassaurek noted: “A cook would negate offering her services without the help of an assistant.” Families of the colony were typically large, having many children and including extended family like grandparents, aunts, and uncles, who all shared the same table. Many hands were required in chores such as peeling potatoes, shelling grains, fetching water, and stoking the fire. For women of modest income, cooking was divided among family members and often relied on simplicity to be more manageable.

Diet of the Amerindians

In the Andean region of the Province of Quito, the indigenous people based their diet on vegetable products and maize in particular, prepared in a variety that surprised historian William Bennet Stevenson, who wrote: “I have often been assured by them [natives], that forty-six different kinds of cakes and dishes are made from maize.” To name just a few that today are still Ecuadorean favourites: mote, humitas, and tostado. Tuberous vegetables were widely consumed, from potatoes—for which Stevenson counted thirty-two recipes—to mellocos and yuca. Historian Jenny Londoño adds that other food staples were quinoa and chochos, and the indigenous version of domesticated meat was llama and cuy or guinea pig.


The fermented, alcoholic drink of the Indians was chicha, made primarily from maize. Prepared by women, chicha was a ceremonial and ritual drink as well as a daily beverage that alleviated hunger and fatigue. Stevenson noted how “passionate” the Indians were about chicha: “It is not uncommon indeed for an Indian to make a meal of twenty or thirty pods of capsicum, a little salt, a piece of bread, and two or three quarts of chicha.” Spaniards Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa observed that the Indians subsisted during long journeys on spoonfuls of machca, maize flour, diluted with mouthfuls of chicha.

Capsicum: Aji

The pervasive spice of the Andean diet was aji, or chile, a piquant flavour to which the Spaniards were unaccustomed. Aji is endemic to the Americas and its export to the rest of world is attributed to Christopher Columbus who discovered the plant upon his first voyage. And, today, no traditional Ecuadorean meal is complete without a sauce made of aji.

Spanish Diet

The Spaniards introduced a variety of domesticated animals: pigs, horses, cows, sheep, and chickens, and augmented the range of crops by planting wheat, rye, and oats, and legumes such as garbanzos and lentils. They also imported four-season fruits, such as apples and pears, which adapted to the higher altitudes and colder climes in the Province of Quito, like the city and surrounding region of Ambato.

Colonial Markets of Quito

The markets of Quito were abundantly supplied with produce from all over the province, coast to mountain. Fray Antonio Vázquez de Espinosa wrote in the 17th century that the market had “many types of delicious fruits, like apples, peaches, figs, apricots … and native fruits of the country… like bananas, avocados, pineapples, sweet cucumbers, and granadillas…” The supply of food was indeed remarkable due to the distinct climates of changing altitude that any traveller of the time observed and Stevensen described as varying “at every step,” so that both European and native foods could be cultivated year round.

Chocolate and Sorbets

Chocolate was so beloved that poetry was written in honour of its divineness, as a pleasure and even as nourishment. The cocoa produced in the Province of Quito was of such excellent taste that it became the region’s most important export during the 18th century. Chocolate was drunk and served with cakes and sweets, such as candied fruits.

Sorbets were also a favourite sweet. These ice sorbets were typically prepared by nuns using glacial ice Indians would fetch from Quito’s volcano Pichincha. Ingredients to make sorbets were fruit juices, cream, and milk, and these liquids were poured into moulds that imitated fruits like pineapple, kept in ice mixed with salt, and when frozen de-moulded to present on a plate. These sorbets had the fame of being the delight of dinner parties.

Trade in the Americas

Foods were also imported from other territories of the Americas where the Spaniards had implanted their traditions. For example, from Peru, came olive oil and olives, and from Chile, red and white wines and vinegars.

Culinary Mestizaje

The traditional food of Ecuador’s highlands is the result of culinary mestizaje, a cross-breeding of native and Spanish ingredients and recipes. The undisputed prevalence of queso fresco, a soft and unaged cheese, locro, a potato soup, fritada, fried pork, llapingachos, potato fritters, and caldo de patas, made from the gelatine-like flesh of cows’ hooves and mixed with boiled maize, are all examples of a gastronomic tradition of two cultures.


  1. Bosland, P.W. (1996). Capsicums: Innovative uses of an ancient crop. p. 479-487. In: J. Janick (ed.), Progress in new crops. ASHS Press, Arlington, VA.
  2. Juan, Jorge; de Ulloa Antonio (1964). A Voyage to South America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  3. Hassaurek, Friedrich (1996). “La Servidumbre Domestica” in Quito Segun los Extranjeros. Quito: Editoriales Felipe Guamán Poma.
  4. Londoño, Jenny (1997). Entre la Sumision y la Resistencia, Las Mujeres en la Real Audiencia. Quito: Abya-Yala.
  5. Stevenson, W.B. (1825). A Historical and Descriptive Narrative of Twenty Years’ Residence in South America. London: Hurst, Robinson, and Co.