Growing up, my favorite meal of the day was breakfast. My dad, a professional chef and restauranteur, had a rotating schedule of options: waffles or homemade oatmeal with brown sugar and fruit on Mondays, banana or chocolate chip or strawberry pancakes on Tuesdays, lemony crepes with tart jam on Wednesdays, eggs any way we liked on Thursdays (with toast and homemade jam); these were our breakfast foods. And yes, I know that I was spoiled rotten.
The sierran Ecuadorian concept of breakfast food is more savory and open to interpretation. On my first weekend in Quito with my host family, we had a Sunday special that my host mom worked on for hours: caldo de pata, or cow hoof stew. I couldn’t figure out what I was eating or how to eat it. My 9-year-old brother happily picked up his hoof and was sucking the gelatinous white “meat” off it while my 2-year-old brother gnawed on his own bone, but at 10 in the morning, I could barely stomach the rich, oily broth and heaping mound of rice.
Not everything is completely different. In restaurants, heavily salted eggs come with plain white rice on the side. My host mom often serves buns and croissants, sometimes with queso fresco cheese in the middle; we even have a panini press to heat them up, along with a blender, a juicer, and a microwave for cafecita and aguita, which means a cup of warmed milk with instant coffee added, or hot water with herbal tea. Some of the teas, like chamomile, I recognize; others appear as a boiled handful of leaves with unfamiliar flavors and colors.
My host mom and other host families sometimes make fresh juices and batidos, which are blended with milk, using plenty of sugar and the kinds of fruits that are difficult to get in the U.S. if you can find them at all. For example, guaba is a bean pod usually more than a foot long with fuzzy, white seeds inside; guanabana, a spiky oblong fruit about the size of a melon, and chirimoya, its fist-sized, slightly less sweet cousin; and tomate del arbol, which looks like a football-shaped tomato but has hard seeds and sour meat inside.
This part of the mountains is like Seattle in that it basically has one season – temperate – but with less rain and ripe fruit all the time. Many host families take advantage of this and also eat different fruits for breakfast, some recognizable and others new to me. Strawberries, cherries, watermelon and bananas are all common, but so are tiny yellow plums, sour and eaten by the handful; sapote, a sweet gourd that doesn’t need to be cooked; and grenadilla, yellow-shelled and smaller than a fist, with meat like frog eggs.
My favorite traditional Ecuadorian breakfast food is avena, a sort of milky, drinkable oatmeal, with humitas, which are savory corn cakes steamed in the husk. The most popular breakfast food, though, is a chuchapi (the indigenous Kichua word for hangover) cure: encebollado. The thick fish soup, always served with popcorn to sprinkle in, is a favorite Sunday morning meal. It usually involves most of the fish, some onions and celery, oil, and plenty of white rice. When I told my students that I’d never had it before and never seen it in Seattle, they went crazy. Personally, I think part of the popularity is the popcorn – canguil is everywhere; any excuse to eat it for breakfast is a plus – and part of it is hype, because it doesn’t taste much different to me than any other Ecuadorian soup served at lunchtime or for dinner.
But all of this is just mountain cuisine. In my brief trip to the coast, verde, which is a type of banana, was in everything from the egg scramble to the side dumplings called bolones, so I’m looking forward to trying new choices in the upcoming months!
“From Kirkland to Quito” chronicles Kirkland native Emma Tremblay’s experiences in Quito, Ecuador, where she is a Peace Corps trainee. Tremblay is a 2012 graduate from International Community School and 2016 graduate from Colgate University.