To get your head around any Quiteño menu is to understand how a mash-up of cultures, continents, eras, ingredients and tastes shaped the city’s traditions and society – both in the kitchen and out of it. Once you grasp this, you’ll feel much more comfortable ordering food in the Old Town Quito.
The starting point of the city’s traditional cuisine can be traced back to well before the 16th century with the Pre-Columbian diet: potatoes, camote (sweet potato), yuca (manioc), and the less-known tubers melloco, oca and mashua, all came from the Pachama (Mother Earth). From Init, or Father Sun: quinoa, fréjol (bean), zambo (squash), zapallo (pumpkin) hot chili pepper and maize. Animal protein didn’t figure in their lives, but hot pepper ají (hot sauce) was already a fixture.
With the arrival of the Spaniards in Ecuador in 1534 came new influences: conquistadors brought their horses and their cross, as well as their own culinary traditions. Garlic, onion, oil, wheat, wine, vinegar, and new fruits arrived from over the seas, as did cows, pigs, and chicken.
The collision of these two worlds produced mestizaje – a new race of Americans in the region and a new culinary identity. This culinary tradition is honored in Casa Gangotena’s restaurant signature style: Cocina Mestiza. The product of this synthesis was the continent’s first fusion cuisine whereby the best ingredients and techniques combined for thrilling results. Maize tortillas got a cheese filling, and peanuts got a new lease of life, ají was pickled to last for seasons.
The Republican Era beginning in 1822 had a refining effect on gastronomy, with more delicate cuts of meat, modern herbs, and the introduction of pastry.
Today, chefs are being more creative with foods than ever before, mixing new styles, techniques, and ingredients with traditional customs.
From clanging market stalls to the swishiest white tablecloth affair, you’ll find variations on the same, mouth-watering fare, that will remind you of something that you can’t quite put your finger on. But though it bears similarities to, and was probably by, other cuisines, there are some elements that make Quito dining truly unique.
What to order:
Locro de cuero
This creamy potato soup, garnished with a chunk of avocado and a fistful of cheese, induces tears of nostalgia in any Ecuadorian who spent time in the highlands in their youth. Its comforting warmth is perfect for chilly Andean nights.
Seco de pollo
Though “seco” may mean “dry” in English, this chicken stew is full of moisture and flavor. Served with a heap of pearly rice and salad, some of the best versions are found in the least assuming of eateries.
There is nothing healthy about this fried pork wonder. Sweet and salty, tender and crunchy, a good fritada ticks all the boxes.
Seco de chivo
Like its chicken cousin, the seco de chivo is also a juicy stew, but this time made with goat. Surprisingly tasty and healthy, goat meat is popular in Ecuadorian cooking.
Prepared with the typical tomato-inflection of the Andes as opposed to the tangier lemon version of the coast, this chilled dish of white fish, or sometimes seafood, is served with onions and popcorn which tradition dictates must be crumbled into the mix to add a gratifying crunch.
Crunchy on the outside, squishy on the inside, these golden potato patties are fried in pork fat for sticky, sweet satisfaction.
Higos con queso
Figs with fresh cheese might sound like a strange combination to non-Latinos, but to Ecuadorians, it’s the meeting of two foods of the gods in one heavenly dessert. Springy white cheese is licked by a caramel laced syrup, binding the dairy with luscious, sweet figs.
Indisputably the best vehicle for chicharrón – fried pork and crackling – nutritious mote loses its saintliness as it’s coated in glorious pig fat, doused in ají and shoveled adoringly into the mouth.