Chef Edgar Leon is surprised that the most popular American cuisine in India is Mexican. “Not even Peruvian? The dishes are so similar to Indian food!” exclaims the Cordon Bleu chef from Ecuador. On his first visit to India, Leon speaks to Lounge about the variety in his native cuisine. Edited excerpts:
What is the essence of Ecuadorian cuisine?
Ecuador has four main regions: the Galapagos, the coast, the Andes highlands and the Amazonian rainforests. The food varies greatly from region to region. The costeños (people living on the coast) eat a lot of seafood. Plantain and peanuts form the basis of a lot of dishes. The serranos from the highlands like potatoes, meat and lot of grains. In the Amazon, they eat a lot of tubers, like tapioca, yuca (cassava), flowers like artichoke and heart of palm.
Equatorial flavours: Chef Edgar Leon.
Describe a typical day’s meals.
Lunch is the most important. In the coast, a traditional breakfast will be salprieta, made with roasted and ground peanuts. In the highlands, it’s mote pillo, made of white corn boiled with eggs, pork, beans and habas (a kind of grain).
Lunch is a three-course meal: a soup, the segundo (main course) and then desserts or coffee. In the highland, the most popular soup is locro. It has 27 varieties, but the main ingredient is potatoes. The main course will be a protein, like pork or beef or fish. Dinners are simple one-course meals.
What is the main cooking medium?
Traditionally, our cuisine uses a lot of palm oil. But I like to use avocado oil. It’s an Ecuadorian speciality. It has no smell of its own. So it can take on a lot of flavour. It’s a more interesting oil than olive. We even wear avocado oil on the hair, like you use coconut oil.
What are the desserts like?
We love compotes. There’s a great many fruits in Ecuador, many available only locally—papaya, badea, passion fruit, tomato, berries, apples, naranjilla (pronounced naranhija), tamarind.
And what about chocolate?
Chocolate in South America is not sweet but salty. It’s used in many main courses. Llama milk is popular, especially among the indigenous people.
What drink pairs best with Ecuadorian food?
Beer goes best. We don’t pair the drinks. Rather, after meals you usually sit back with a beer to relax. That’s the traditional way. The modern cuisine pairs well with red wine, since we use a lot of red meat. A sugarcane-based drink, Aguardiente, is very, very popular.
Do you have any Indian restaurants there?
There’s a couple of Indian places in Quito (the capital city) and a few Pakistani restaurants, but they are popular because of the cheap beer you can get there. There are no fine-dining Indian restaurants.
Locro de papas (potato soup)
1kg potatoes, cut into cubes
1 litre milk
250ml milk cream
1 pound (around 450g) cottage cheese, cut into small dices
4 leaves of coriander
40ml avocado oil (if not available, palm oil)
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 litres water
Salt and pepper to taste
Chop the leek and sear it in hot oil. Fry the potatoes with the leek. Add water and cook for about 1 hour.
Add the cottage cheese followed by milk and lastly the milk cream. Cook till you get the desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with the chopped onion and garlic, fried to a golden brown, and coriander leaves just before serving. It goes best with a slice of avocado.
The Ecuadorian food promotion is on at The Pavilion, ITC Maurya, New Delhi, till 18 October for Rs 2,250 (weekday) and Rs 3,250 (weekend) per person, plus taxes.@