Guide for vegetarians living/traveling in Ecuador
Being vegetarian in Ecuador is not particularly difficult, although you may have to be slightly creative at times. The two most common problems that you may come across are that most Ecuadorians think vegetarians either :
1) Only eat “ensalada” (salad) : so you will have to explain, with patience of course, that you can also eat cheese, eggs, rice, potatoes etc. depending on your tastes, which should usually result in you being brought something that you can eat or
2) Also eat chicken and/fish : so depending on how strict you are, you may need to ask what “caldo” (broth) is used in any soup, even if it sounds vegetarian.
Vegans may have a slightly tougher time as foods like nuts (apart from peanuts) have only been in the country since 2006 and at the moment can only be found in larger cities like Quito or Guayaquil.
General food habits in Ecuador
Food is a huge part of Ecuadorian life. Typically, most Ecuadorians will eat 3 meals a day:
For a vegetarian this will probably be the easiest meal for you to cope with. Depending on where you are in the country you should be able to choose from fruit, cheese, yogurt, bread and eggs with tea, coffee or chocolate. Different regions will have their own specialities as well.
This is the most important meal of the day and typically consists of soup of different kinds and a second course of rice and some kind of meat/fish with ensalada or vegetables. For vegetarians, ask the restaurant if they can change the meat for eggs or cheese – they should usually have these. However, some restaurants that only serve a set lunch may be unwilling to do this – be insistent, but polite.
Merienda or Cena (Dinner)
This is either a smaller version of lunch or just bread and a warm drink.
Good places to get vegetarian food are Chifas (Chinese restaurants) although it may be wise to ask for your food “bien cocinado” (well done) if you are concerned about hygiene standards. Pizza restaurants can also be found in most towns and these should have at least one non-meat option.
If you are afraid of eating raw salad that has been washed in non-sterilized water ask if they can cook the salad – “saltear la ensalada” (they might give you a strange look, but cooked lettuce and cucumber is surprisingly good – and safe!)
Carry a jar of peanut butter or some other source of protein with you just in case there are no other options.
You may also want to have some kind of sauce as well as occasionally the food can be a little dry and boring.
When you go into a restaurant, have a look at what other people have on their plates and ask for combinations of this. Look at the menu and see how they prepare the meat – they should usually be able to do the same with vegetables, for example:
- Al Ajillo – Cooked in garlic and pepper sauce
- Estofado – Cooked in a tomato sauce
- Salsa de Maní – Peanut sauce (more commonly known as gordo de maní) – most common in the province of Manabí
- Encocado – coconut sauce – most common in the province of Esmeraldas
- Regional Hints and Tips
Cities like Quito, Guayaquil, Cuenca and also some smaller towns that are used to tourists should pose no problems for vegetarians. You will be able to find a wide range of restaurants, both specialty vegetarian and non-specialty, that will be able to cater for your needs.
Most restaurants will have avocado, plantain, mote (large corn kernels), potatoes, cheese and probably some kind of prepared salad in their kitchen so they should be able to rustle you up something.
Other dishes you can ask for:
- Locro de papas – Potato and cheese soup often served with avocado
- Llapingachos – Fried potato and cheese cakes
- Chochos – Lupin seeds, very high protein
- Quinoa – High-protein nutritious grain that is used to make soups and other foods
- Humitas or Quimbolitos – Made from corn or corn flour and steamed in different leaves. These come in either sweet or savoury varieties.
- Churrasco – A dish that usually contains sausages, ask for it with salad or cheese instead.
On the coast, “frijoles” (beans) that are served in restaurants are usually known as “menestra” so ask for this. However, “menestra” doesn´t always mean beans, because they also make menestra with potato, yuca and plantain, so check that it is “menestra de frejoles” (beans) o lenteja (lentils). You can also ask for “arroz con vegetales” or even better “arroz colorado con muchos vegetales”. They often use lots of oil so you might like to say “sin aceite” (without oil). You can ask for the same with spaghetti (tallarine con vegetales).
Protein options include the ubiquitous eggs and “queso frito” (fried cheese, which sounds strange but is really good). In Manabí, they will most likely have peanut butter in the kitchen, but in Ecuador they only ever use it to cook with or to eat with plaintain, not to have on bread. It is called maní molido (not mantequilla de maní).
Other typical food options:
- Empanadas de verde – Make sure you ask for them “con queso” (with cheese)
- Sopa de bola verde – Plantain dumpling soup
- Cocadas – Sweets made with coconut
- Patacones – Fried verde plantain slices
- Ceviche – Normally made with seafood. You can ask for ceviche sin mariscos or “ceviche de rabano” (radish ceviche) and “ceviche de platano” (plantain ceviche). You might get some strange looks but the cooks usually oblige.
As a vegetarian, this may be the most difficult region for you. Yuca is grown everywhere and there is a huge variety of tropical fruits but finding protein could be difficult if you don’t eat eggs or dairy. Although it is unlikely that you will be travelling in the Oriente on your own; You will be most likely staying at a lodge or on a boat that will provide your food for you.
Where can I find things?
Tofu can be obtained at some health food stores and in oriental food markets in larger cities.
Tempeh (fermented vegetable protein made with whole soybeans) is not available commercially but can be obtained in Quito from Sue Mann. Tel : (02) 2570600, or Maria Elena in Quito. Tel : (02) 2843584, or from Edwin in Vilcabamba. Cell phone : (09) 35998589. It is also served in several restaurants in Vilcabamba.
Gluten and soya products: Many health food shops carry these (Ex. In Quito – shopping centre CCI – ground floor in a store called Natura) as does Camari – (see below). In Guayaquil – Mall del Sol ground floor, store called Toque de Naturaleza.
Nuts can be found in the Iñaquito market, the Santa Clara market and supermarkets like Supermaxi in Quito. You may also be able to find them in some of the other big cities.
Organic vegetables are not common – most will have been grown with pesticides. In Quito there is an organic farmer who can be found on Thursdays at La Floresta markets and Saturdays at La Esquina in Cumbaya (about 30 mins from Quito). Camari (open 6 days a week) has a wide variety of organic vegetables, especially on Fridays. It is a fair trade store (also has handicrafts) located on Calle Marchena between Versalles and 10 de agosto, close to Santa Clara Market (you can get nuts from the market while there). El Maple restaurant in Quito also serves organic food. Having moved recently, it is now located on Joaquín Pinto, west of Diego de Almagro.
Other places to find organic vegetables are :
- Canoa: You may order vegetable baskets from Río Muchacho Organic Farm, delivered on Saturday morning.
- Latacunga: Thursday mornings in the market.
- Amaguaña: Saturday morning
- Butter = Mantequilla
- Carrots = Zanahorias
- Cabbage = Col
- Cheese = Queso
- Celery = Apio
- Courgette (Zucchini) = Calabacines
- Garlic = Ajo
- Lettuce = Lechuga
- Mayonnaise = Mayonesa
- Mushrooms = Champinoñes
- Mustard = Mostaza
- Olive Oil = Aceite de oliva
- Peas = Guisantes or Arvejas
- Pepper = Pimiento
- Potatoes = Papas
- Rice = Arroz
- Runner Beans = Habichuela
- Salt = Sal
- Sauce = Salsa
- Seasoning = Condimento
- Sweet = Potato Camote
- Tomato = Tomate
- Tomate = Vinagre