All too often South American food is lumped into the same menu bracket in British restaurants, meaning a multitude of unique dishes from countries like Ecuador are yet to be discovered. Produce Business UK takes a look at the mountain of opportunities out there for future fresh produce supply from the Andean nation with a trip to two London-based Ecuadorian restaurants
A mix of Inca and Spanish influence, Ecuadorian cuisine is a fresh produce paradise, with both green and yellow plantain, tomatoes, onions, pretty much every kind of corn, citrus, herbs and exotic fruits, like tamarillo and cherimoya, key to its various refreshing and filling dishes.
Arguably more substantial than Peruvian fare and easier to access than Chilean, Ecuadorian food is a product of its lost Inca culture, the 300-year occupation by the Spanish and the varying range of fresh produce the country grows thanks to its trio of landscapes: the coast, jungle and mountains.
The West End experience
“Popcorn is an Inca invention,” informs new restaurateur, Fernando Leon at Tostado, as I begin my education in Ecuadorian cuisine. “Everyone assumes it’s American, but if it’s anything to do with corn, you can bet it originated in Ecuador. It’s eaten in all forms and forms part of many different meals.”
Leon claims the variety of food produced in Ecuador makes for a very rich cuisine. “We start with a heavy breakfast like Bolón de Verde [mashed plantain wrapped in banana leaves and stuffed with cheese], a light lunch of Ceviche, or a soup or meat stew with corn, potatoes and bread in the same dish,” he says. “We certainly don’t believe in low carbs.”
He’s not lying either. The Ecuador-born businessman has even named his restaurant appropriately, with Tostado meaning ‘toasted maize’. In his 20-cover Soho café and bar there’s also a cute theatre-style popcorn machine, which produces traditional salty popcorn that’s served as an appetiser or with a creamy and tangy prawn ceviche.
From breakfast to dinner, at Tostado there a multitude of corn-based meals made from either a soft and yellow corn dough – similar to that used to make Vietnamese buns filled with chicken and pork – or the dried, soaked and boiled huge Ecuadorian corn kernels that have been imported for certain stews and soups.
As I sit at one of the wooden tables in the tile-clad bar, I hear the oohs and ahhs of customers arriving for lunch, with one claiming the food is just like when she travelled around the South American country and others marvelling at the handy tasting menu that’s ideal for first-timers.
Tostado opened only a year ago, becoming the first Ecuadorian restaurant in London’s West End. When I ask Leon why this is, he says it comes down to investors. “A restaurant is always a risk, but Ecuadorian food hasn’t really been explored in London so it does seem more of a long shot,” Leon explains, having set up the restaurant with his 92-year-old mother, who for years headed up Panselecto, the family bakery in Ecuador.
“We waited 15 years for the exact right location in the West End. Location is very important to how well a restaurant will do and hopefully we will open up the market for more Ecuadorian restaurants.
“The feedback has been great – for the service as well as the food – and we get recommended a lot. I have even heard that we are one of the favourites of the Cats’ producer [of the West End musical].”
To the north
Heading north from the West End to Holloway, Ecuadorian chef Luis Torres Yunda has been serving traditional Ecuadorian food for 20 years at El Rincón Quiteño. During the day, however, he diversifies slightly to provide a café menu with various food – including a bean, corn and plantain Ecuadorian breakfast – that appeals to the student trade coming from the University of London opposite. At night, meanwhile, he offers mainly a mix of Ecuadorian and Colombian dishes.
“From the Seco de Chivo – a goat stew – and Fritada con Mote to the Ecuadorian ceviche, our dishes bring back a lot of repeat custom, and we are very well known by South Americans in London,” says Torres Yunda, who was head chef at the hotel Nucleo de Ejecutivos in Ecuador before he came to the UK in 1980. From then on he worked at several prestigious Italian restaurants, including La Capannina in Soho, before opening his own South American restaurant with his late Colombian wife.
“The menu, like Ecuadorian food, is packed with fresh produce – very good quality fresh produce,” he explains. “We use two different kinds of plantain – yellow and green – a lot of coriander, garlic, bird’s eye chilli, red onions, spring onions, tomatoes; the list is endless, and the quality of our dishes depend on the fresh ingredients we choose to use.
“We have used the same supplier at New Covent Garden Market since we opened the restaurant and he knows we stand for nothing but the best. If, occasionally, there is a problem I’ll go to Seven Sisters Market to choose something different myself. We also use a South American supplier called Chatica, based in Colombia, which sources our cornbread, corn flour, yuca, potatoes and bread.
“There are many suppliers out there, but ours have never missed a delivery and we know them very well. I can’t trust someone to get my meat for me so I have to go to Smithfield Market to buy that myself. With all the ingredients we need, I like to get the best quality for the best tasting and safest food.
“A lot of people know me, and it’s my reputation on the line. If you don’t stay on top, you lose custom and that’s very easy to do. To make a profit, you have to offer good quality. I am open to trying something new, but again, you have to maintain the quality of the menu or the regulars will lose interest.”
Leon says his ‘modern take’ on Ecuadorian food still requires traditional ingredients, such as all the different kinds of corns he’d find in his ancestral home. “There’s a lot of influence here,” he says of his restaurant that feeds 40-50 people on a busy night. “It’s more of a tribute to Ecuadorian food, set out in an English way.
“We source as locally as we can for fruit and vegetables, apart from the obvious like plantain and the various corn varieties, for which we have an exotics supplier. We have worked with the best suppliers from the beginning – they have been in place since we opened. We researched it intensely. Consistency is the key and there’s nothing we can’t get here.”
The next frontier
Torres Yunda feels the reach of Ecuadorian food is slowly growing in the UK, and he finds a lot of people ask for ceviche and the stews in particular. “People appreciate dishes from different countries in London,” he says, pointing out that customers come to his restaurant for the full Ecuadorian experience, with traditional bands playing throughout the weekend and a 6am alcohol license.
“It gets very crowded at the weekends with people from South America, but also Londoners who have never eaten Ecuadorian food before. People appreciate and respect different food cultures so much more than they used to.”
A year into its Ecuadorian food venture, meanwhile, Tostado is flying. “If we continue as we are, we will look for a bigger place in the same kind of location and keep this site on,” reveals Leon. “People in London are looking for Ecuadorian food – they are food explorers and want food from around the world. It’s a great opportunity to share, what we think, is the best food from our country.”
Ecuadorian food at a glance
Prawns ‘cooked’ in orange, lemon and tomato juice with red onions and garlic, served in their juices like a cold soup with plantain. Tostado’s version features puréed tomatoes, while the prawns are king-size, and the dish is dressed with a creamy slug of olive oil and served, iced cold, with plantain crisps and popcorn (adding a lovely saltiness when mixed in).
Over at El Rincón Quiteño, the ceviche is a more rustic version, with chopped and chunky flavoursome tomatoes, lots of parsley and coriander, shrimps, fried pressed plantain fritters and Torres Yunda’s own chilli sauce that develops into a fiery heat the more you eat it – it’s warming rather than scolding.
Both are worth trying for different reasons and I wouldn’t be able to pick a favourite.
Chunks of marinated and fried pork shoulder with a salad of boiled large corn, tomatoes, red onions and fried yellow plantain.
Mashed green plantain ball wrapped around cheese or pork. Served as a breakfast in Ecuador’s coastal areas sometimes with fried eggs. Tostado serves these in a long roll, made to Leon’s mother’s recipe. They are fluffy, light and extremely tasty.
Grilled or roast guinea pig.
Pastries stuffed with fried cheese.
Steamed maize and corn, wrapped in a banana leaf.
The fruit’s flesh is used in various dishes and its juice is served as a drink.
Read other articles in PBUK’s Sourcing Spotlight on Ecuador:
How Exquisite Ecuador is emphasising quality supply for niche UK buyers
Ecuadorian banana sector in buoyant mood over prospects for wider UK presence
UK tipped as potential growth market for Ecuadorian mangoes
Produce potential aplenty from Ecuador
Ecuador breathes sigh of relief as El Niño impact proves less severe than anticipated
Making healthy eating moreish with Ecuadorian chef María Ruth Moreno