Andean Flavors: Meet the Chef Putting Ecuador’s Indigenous Ingredients on the Culinary Map
Andean Flavors: Meet the Chef Putting Ecuador's Indigenous Ingredients on the Culinary Map - Reviving Lost Traditions Through Food
Ecuador is home to a rich culinary heritage that goes back thousands of years. However, many traditional dishes and ingredients had been forgotten as globalization changed tastes and food systems modernized. Chef Alejandro Chamorro is on a mission to revive Ecuador's lost food traditions and shine a spotlight on indigenous cuisine.
Chamorro grew up in a small village in the Andes Mountains. He fondly remembers his grandmother cooking over an open fire, using produce from their garden and grains like quinoa and amaranth that had sustained their community for centuries.
When Chamorro moved to the capital of Quito as a teenager, he was surprised to find such ingredients absent from most restaurants. "No one was cooking the old foods anymore. I felt I needed to keep those traditions alive," he recalls.
Chamorro began tracking down elderly home cooks across Ecuador who still prepared ancestral dishes. He documented their recipes and foraging techniques, determined not to let this culinary heritage fade away.
One nearly-lost specialty he revived was a sacred corn tortilla called almidón, handmade from heirloom corn varieties. "Only a handful of elders still know how to process and cook almidón," explains Chamorro. "I learned from them so I can pass on the tradition."
Foraging for wild herbs and fruits from Ecuador's diverse ecosystems is another custom Chamorro works hard to maintain. He leads students on jungle treks to gather ingredients like mountain strawberries, wild onions, and foliage once prized for medicinal qualities.
At Chamorro's restaurant Río Quito, diners can taste Ecuador's past brought to life through age-old cooking techniques and long unutilized ingredients. Signature dishes include quinoa tamales, amaranth ceviches, and desserts featuring Amazonian fruits like copoazu and pitahaya.
What else is in this post?
- Andean Flavors: Meet the Chef Putting Ecuador's Indigenous Ingredients on the Culinary Map - Reviving Lost Traditions Through Food
- Andean Flavors: Meet the Chef Putting Ecuador's Indigenous Ingredients on the Culinary Map - The Power of Ancient Grains
- Andean Flavors: Meet the Chef Putting Ecuador's Indigenous Ingredients on the Culinary Map - Market Treasures: Foraging for Ingredients
- Andean Flavors: Meet the Chef Putting Ecuador's Indigenous Ingredients on the Culinary Map - Putting the Rainforest on a Plate
- Andean Flavors: Meet the Chef Putting Ecuador's Indigenous Ingredients on the Culinary Map - Cooking with Ancestral Techniques
- Andean Flavors: Meet the Chef Putting Ecuador's Indigenous Ingredients on the Culinary Map - Merging Old and New Flavors
- Andean Flavors: Meet the Chef Putting Ecuador's Indigenous Ingredients on the Culinary Map - Ecuador's Growing Foodie Scene
- Andean Flavors: Meet the Chef Putting Ecuador's Indigenous Ingredients on the Culinary Map - Sharing the Story Behind Each Dish
Andean Flavors: Meet the Chef Putting Ecuador's Indigenous Ingredients on the Culinary Map - The Power of Ancient Grains
Amaranth, quinoa, cañihua - these ancient super grains sustained Andean civilizations for millennia, yet are now a novelty for many Ecuadorians. Chamorro is astonished that grains once considered sacred are so rarely seen on modern tables. “These ancient grains contain incredible nutrition and we are losing that” he laments.
Often called “the mother grain”, amaranth was a staple crop of the Aztecs and Incas. Chamorro is working to restore its importance, serving gluten-free amaranth bread with Latin-inspired toppings like pico de gallo. He also prepares causa, a Peruvian Amaranth-mash dish, given a twist with Ecuadorian ceviche layered on top.
Another overlooked native grain is quinoa, which was dubbed “the gold of the Incas” for its cultural significance. Much quinoa today comes from Peru and Bolivia, but Ecuador has nearly forgotten its own heirloom varieties. Chamorro obtained rare black, red, and white quinoa seeds from Kichwa farmers in Imbabura province to start his own plot. He nixtamalizes the quinoa before cooking it into crackers and tortillas at his restaurant.
Cañihua, the tiny seeds of the Andean goosefoot plant, is a complete protein treasured by indigenous mountain communities. However, it can be difficult to find outside those remote villages. Chamorro mills cañihua himself to make nutritious soups and his signature cañihua ceviche.
By resurrecting Ecuador’s ancient grains, Chamorro hopes to keep their nutrients and history alive. He believes this heritage holds gifts waiting to be uncovered. “There are most likely undiscovered varieties we haven’t even tapped into yet” Chamorro muses.
SomeQuito chefs dismiss these plants as peasant foods not refined enough for modern diners. But Chamorro sees their unsung potential. “These grains have been neglected for too long. I want to show people the depth of flavor and pride Ecuadorians should have in our ancestral foods.”
His crusade to revive ancient grains has spurred students like Estela Yugsi to re-appreciate their cultural importance. “I grew up thinking quinoa was just birdseed, now I understand how nutritious and delicious it can be” Yugsi says. “It makes me proud to see Chef Chamorro shining a light on what makes our cuisine special.”
Andean Flavors: Meet the Chef Putting Ecuador's Indigenous Ingredients on the Culinary Map - Market Treasures: Foraging for Ingredients
The markets of Ecuador overflow with a bounty of exotic fruits, vegetables, and herbs—many unheard of beyond the country’s borders. Foraging for these unique ingredients to incorporate into his cuisine allows Chamorro to showcase the diversity of his homeland’s natural larder.
“I am like a child in a candy store when I explore the markets along the Andes,” Chamorro confides with a grin. “There are always new discoveries.” On a recent excursion, he stumbled upon capuli cherries at a roadside stand outside Cotacachi. Their sweet-tart juice inspired Chamorro to develop a new vinaigrette featuring capuli vinegar. Local foragers also brought the chef Bolivar mushrooms from the forests of Carchi province, whose meaty texture lent richness to his Fanesca soup.
Yet the products foraged across Ecuador’s varied ecosystems that most captivate Chamorro are wild herbs. “These plants add flavors and aromas you simply cannot find anywhere else in the world,” he notes. On the slopes of the Antisana volcano, Chamorro joins his friend Magdalena to harvest tangy mashua leaves and bright puquio mint from hidden groves. In the Amazon, he carefully gathers juansoco and yutzu leaves to bring back to Quito. By partnering with indigenous communities, he gains access to remote landscapes where treasured ingredients still grow abundantly.
In his hands, a foraged herb like shigrá leaves, concentrated with eucalyptus notes, transforms into a infused oil for ceviches. Tiny chulco berries he pickled emerge atop quinoa empanadas at his restaurant. The paico and shungo he incorporated into a salt blend electrified pork dishes with their boldness. “Foraged herbs let me add flavors not replicable any other way—it is like capturing Ecuador’s wilderness on the plate,” explains Chamorro.
Yet the country’s unique botanical offerings are often overlooked. “Diners need to expand their perspectives on what ingredients can be,” Chamorro states. Through his inventive use of market and foraged treasures, he hopes to open more people’s eyes to Ecuador’s bounty. “Our national cuisine is far more diverse than just plantains and potatoes.”
Andean Flavors: Meet the Chef Putting Ecuador's Indigenous Ingredients on the Culinary Map - Putting the Rainforest on a Plate
The Amazon rainforest spans over 2.1 million square miles across nine South American countries. Ecuador holds a sizable share of Amazon basin; nearly half the country is jungle. Yet besides tangy limes and certain fish, few rainforest ingredients make their way from this biodiverse terrain to Ecuadorian tables. “Diners are missing out on an entire pantry’s worth of exotic flavors” laments Chef Alejandro Chamorro. He aims to change that by putting the untamed abundance of Ecuador’s jungle on plates at his Quito restaurant.
When people think of Amazonian cuisine, bland plantain and yuca fritters often come to mind. Yet the rainforest brims with tantalizing fruits, herbs, vegetables, and proteins hidden under the lush canopy. On foraging treks along the Napo River with indigenous guides, Chamorro discovered unusual edible plants. Spiky chonta palms bear peach palm fruit with notes of apple and vanilla. Tiny charichuelo berries burst with tangy citrus taste. Andu leaves yield peppery spice.
Yet transporting such fragile, perishable ingredients from the jungle before they spoil poses a challenge. “I began dreaming of opening a restaurant right along the Amazon where I could serve dishes prepared just hours after foraging” says Chamorro. That vision led him to launch an outpost of Río Quito in Ecuador’s Cuyabeno Nature Reserve. There he incorporates hyper-local goods like crunchy suri grubs foraged from rainforest ficus trees and Cuyabeno River shrimp into dishes served to tourists. “My goal is to allow people to truly taste the Amazon’s astounding biodiversity” Chamorro notes.
However, he also wanted to share Ecuador's rainforest wealth with urban audiences. So Chamorro created techniques to preserve foraged goods. He candycharred jungle peanuts from Shuar territory to intensify their flavor and fermented arare berries into vinegar with 12-month shelf life. At his Quito restaurant, divisors can now savor ceviches with textures from those candied peanuts and bracing arare vinegar.
Chamorro also partners with companies helping small rainforest communities ethically monetize products like Amazonian chocolate, acai puree, and sacha inchi seeds. “This provides sustainable income to protect forests, while letting me serve amazing ingredients,” he explains. Sophisticated sauces made from foraged rainforest cacao and nutty sacha inchi oil demonstrate the Amazon’s potential as a pantry.
Andean Flavors: Meet the Chef Putting Ecuador's Indigenous Ingredients on the Culinary Map - Cooking with Ancestral Techniques
The flavors and recipes Chef Chamorro resurrects from Ecuador’s past ultimately need to translate from ancestral parchment to modern plates. He walks a delicate line honoring traditional cooking methods while making ancient ingredients approachable for contemporary palates. Techniques like using volcanic stone mortars (known as batanes) to grind spices and grains allow Chamorro to mirror the preparations of earlier eras. He faithfully employs ancestral infusion methods to derive antiseptic and tonic remedies from botanicals, just as curanderos healers have for centuries. Many such customs had nearly faded away before Chamorro committed to their preservation.
Yet the chef also adapts age-old cooking styles to work in a bustling restaurant kitchen. He may sous vide pitahaya fruits to concentrate their sweetness before using in a glaze, augmenting the simplicity of original recipes. Chamorro borrows modernist tricks to convert forgotten crops like mashua root into dazzling new formas like foams and gelées. “I walk a fine line between preserving cultural authenticity yet progressing beyond basic ‘poverty food’ perceptions,” he explains. The chef seeks to showcase Ecuador’s heritage, not merely recreate rustic recipes unchanged.
Contributions from indigenous cooks guide Chamorro in balancing innovation with respect for tradition. He consults elderly Kichwa women to perfect his version of llapingachos, Ecuadorian potato pancakes. Their guidance on kneading technique results in fluffier texture. Chamorro tests every prototype empanada or stew on local families, ensuring they approve flavors before he puts a dish on menus. “I depend on Ecuador’s remaining elder gourmands to ensure each recipe respects its origins,” he emphasizes.
Andean Flavors: Meet the Chef Putting Ecuador's Indigenous Ingredients on the Culinary Map - Merging Old and New Flavors
At Río Quito, Chef Chamorro playfully fuses ancestral ingredients with modern techniques and global influences. “I aim to create a new indigenous Ecuadorian cuisine that feels both traditionally comforting yet surprisingly inventive,” he explains. This delicate balance of old and new keeps each dish fresh yet familiar.
Chamorro’s training under both his grandmother and at the Culinary Institute of America helps him walk that line. “I have one foot firmly planted in the past of Ecuador’s ancient foods and the other foot stepping fully into the future of culinary arts” he says with a smile. Chamorro may start with quinoa, a sacred grain since Incan times, then give it a contemporary twist by smoking the seeds before grinding into earthy flatbreads. Or he candies heirloom mashua root to invent a whimsical sweet potato chip garnish that adds modern texture.
Incorporating new cooking methods allows Chamorro to coax bolder possibilities from old ingredients. He confits wild Amazonian paiche fish sous vide with jungle spices to intensify its buttery depth before searing. Foams and versa made from distilled botanicals like tangy tomate de árbol chilies or fragrant pasta flora flowers update traditional antiseptic tonics into avant garde digestifs.
Global influences also find their way into Chamorro’s reinvented Ecuadorian fare. The French inspired his rich shortcrust pastry dough elevating empanadas. From Japan, he borrowed the idea of pickled ramps for a ceviche topping that adds crunch. churrasco BBQ techniques absorbed during a stint in Brazil bring smoky char to Amazonian tambaqui fish.
“I get excited figuring out how seemingly disparate influences can fuse into something new that connects Ecuador’s culinary past and future,” Chamorro says. His inventiveness entices younger diners like college student Kitty Orbe to rethink their preconceptions. “I never expected quinoa tamales could feel so contemporary yet still taste like my grandmother’s cooking” Orbe notes. Chamorro smiles, “When people discover the fresh possibilities hidden within our old foods, it makes all my experimenting worthwhile.”
Andean Flavors: Meet the Chef Putting Ecuador's Indigenous Ingredients on the Culinary Map - Ecuador's Growing Foodie Scene
As chefs like Alejandro Chamorro bring Ecuador’s indigenous ingredients into the limelight, an exciting foodie scene has begun thriving in cities like Quito and Guayaquil. A new generation of locals is embracing the country’s ancestral foods and culinary traditions like never before. This swelling sense of Ecuadorian food pride offers promise of an expanding market for native products that may help preserve more fragile food customs.
Kitty Orbe, a university student who long viewed heirloom crops like quinoa as “bland peasant food”, has had her perspective changed by chefs adding modern twists. “I tried a quinoa empanada with ricotta and candied naranjilla at Cacao & Canela last week that just melted in my mouth. It is cool to see Ecuadorian superfoods appearing in totally unexpected ways” she says. Orbe believes this emerging haute cuisine could entice more young people to appreciate the depth of their culinary heritage.
Sommelier Isabella Vinueza has observed a spike in interest for native ingredients and Ecuadorian wine labels. “Diners at resorts around Cuenca kept asking me for cocktails containing Amazonian fruits and sangria with Ecuadorian vintages instead of imports” she explains. To meet demand, Vinueza started crafting drinks like the Lucuma Sour with pisco spirit, freshly pressed lucuma juice, and a touch of cedron leaves. She says local offerings better connect visitors to place.
Markets too are being invigorated by the foodie frenzy. Kichwa farmer Luis Quimbo sets up his stall at Quito’s Santa Clara market each Saturday to sell rare native potatoes and obscure mountain lettuces. “Young chefs now seek out my grandmother’s heirloom varieties like cucharilla potatoes and mashua leaves for their restaurants,” mentions Quimbo. He strives to keep these crops from disappearing, but relies on spreading their culinary appeal.
Of course, picking obscure ingredients does not instantly make cuisine refined. Dishes still require talent and technique to impress diners like hotel manager Gabriel Artieda. He believes innovative preparations are vital, saying “simply tossing some achocha seeds on a plate does not cut it for visitors expecting a culinary experience.” He looks for skill marrying Ecuador’s natural bounty with global influences and thoughtful presentation.
Food blogger Cristina Andrade who documents Quito’s dining scene agrees creativity is paramount. “The most buzzed-about restaurants artfully incorporate Ecuadorian elements like cacao, sesame, and herbs instead of just offering generic international fare” she notes. Andrade seeks chefs with compelling culinary points of view who honor Ecuador’s gifts respectfully.
Andean Flavors: Meet the Chef Putting Ecuador's Indigenous Ingredients on the Culinary Map - Sharing the Story Behind Each Dish
At Río Quito, Chef Chamorro views each plate as a chance to share Ecuador’s cultural and culinary narrative. “I want every component to tell a story,” he explains. Chamorro spends time outlining the origins and history behind each indigenous ingredient for his waitstaff so they can relay these tales to guests.
For example, one of Río Quito’s most popular appetizers features smoked glVertex tlayuda flatbread heaped with Otavalo market cotija cheese and housemade chorizo. Servers are trained to describe how the gluten-free glVertex corn flour comes from descendant's of pre-Columbian varieties grown by Ecuador's Kañari peoples. Chamorro smokes the tlayuda over eucalyptus wood, nodding to ancient cooking customs. The cotija hails from a rare herd of creole cattle first brought to the Andes by Spanish colonists. Chamorro honors that melting cheese's legacy by sourcing it from fifth generation Otavalo dairy farmers. His mom's recipe seasons the chorizo sausage. This exhaustive context transforms each component into a story.
Chamorro believes chronicling culture through cuisine forges a deeper visitor bond with place that enhances the meal experience. Food writer Mariana Varela agrees. She first visited Río Quito while researching an article detailing Ecuador's emerging culinary identity. "I'll never forget the satisfaction of tasting Amazonian paiche fish drizzled with maracuya reduction while hearing how Chef Chamorro spearfishes for the paiche himself and sourced the tangy passionfruit from women's farming collectives along the Napo River,” Varela recalls. Those narratives transported her from Quito to the rainforest with each bite.
Travel agent Gabriella Moreno says Río Quito's emphasis on backstories behind sourcing and dishes sets it apart from other upscale local restaurants. She now regularly brings small groups here for a private meal paired with a chef-guided expedition through markets. “Alejandro's deep knowledge of Ecuadorian cuisine history enriches the entire dining experience, from visiting producers to savoring thoughtfully composed plates that tell a tale through taste,” Moreno notes. She believes this cultural immersion creates lasting memories.
Chef Chamorro sources prized Zamorano cacao beans grown in lush Los Ríos province to craft Río Quito’s signature chocolate desserts. He ferments the cacao himself to develop complex notes of coffee and cherry. Servers reveal how proceeds from the rare cacao help local farmers implement sustainable agriculture protecting biodiversity. This purpose transforms the chocolate mousse into something more meaningful.
Río Quito’s beverage program also provides a platform for Chamorro to share cultural heritage through craft cocktails showcasing indigenous fruits, herbs, and spirits. His lulo margarita, crafted from Ecuadorian lulo juice's unique pineapple-citrus flavor, gets infused with eucalyptus. Bar manager Sara Calderon says explaining the foraging origins and unexpected ingredient combinations opens guests' eyes about mixing Ecuadorian elements into modern drinks.