Ecuador is a beautiful and up-and-coming travel destination. I was lucky enough to travel there last fall, and aside from swimming with sea lions in the Galapagos and the hiking in the Andes there’s one thing that undeniably stood out: The food.
Our tour guide through the mainland was Juan Carlos, a charming, educated Ecuadorian 30-something with a love of history, music and eating. He was the perfect match for our six-person nerdy, but exceedingly friendly, Midwestern-bred crew.
“You are the first group I’ve had that actually eats local food,” he said with a giant grin on his face. We were halfway through scarfing down $3 plates of hornado, a pork dish made by slow roasting a whole pig overnight, served with fresh avocado, potatoes and hominy.
One of the more adventurous tourists in our crew had just eaten a worm in Pujo that “tasted like pork,” so we were surprised that this hornado, served in a suburb of Quito, was what Juan Carlos decided to pinpoint.
The dish couldn’t have been simpler or more delicious. Sure, this food wasn’t something we eat daily in the U.S., but it certainly wasn’t exotic. This was freshly prepared meat, corn and potatoes, almost perfectly mirroring the traditional food of the American heartland.
Other local dishes we tried were ceviche made with shrimp and tomatoes, topped with corn nuts and popcorn; locro made with potatoes, cheese and avocados; and assorted fruits including banana passion fruit (taxo), blackberries (known locally as an invasive species), and guyabano.
So we speculated on why vacationers don’t necessarily try this pretty-much approachable cuisine. And why some may shy from hornado in particular.
Was it cleanliness? Perhaps. In Ecuador, even some Ecuadorians like Juan Carlos said they don’t drink the tap water.
More likely, we thought, it was the presentation. When you order hornado in a small shop like we did, the woman you order from is standing behind a counter beside a whole pig, head and all. When you order, she reaches into the hog’s body cavity, and gives you a hunk of the best meat you’ll ever taste.
Oh, and then she cracks off some salty, crunchy pork rind—the skin right off the pig. Some Americans, we conjectured, probably can’t get over the closeness to the preparation.
In the U.S., consumers—myself included—often live in seemingly blissful ignorance about where our food comes from. A recent “This American Life” episode speculated that some pork bung, otherwise known as pig rectum, is served as faux-calamari to unsuspecting consumers. And then there’s the whole horse meat debacle in Europe, spanning—at this point—from Burger King to IKEA’s Swedish meatballs.
U.S. consumers don’t tend to question much about what type of meat is going into sausages or hot dogs, and we don’t (generally speaking) get too worked up about genetically modified foods. Fast-casual brands touting better-for-you and farm-to-table freshness are on the rise, but frozen veggies, dairy-free milkshakes and processed meats are still often considered the norm.
Yet, ethnic foods are on the rise. And American consumers are demanding more and more innovation from fast casual and even quick service operators.
But serving freshly pulled pork straight from a head-on pig? Culturally, perhaps, we’re just not ready for it.
Pictured Above: hornado, before and after. Yum.