By Jim Ferri
When comes to food, I’m not adventurous. That crown goes to my wife Marjorie, who believes that the hotter and spicier something is, all the better. From my perspective, pepper pushes the culinary envelope far enough.
A few days ago in Ecuador, though, the tables turned. We were in Cuenca, high up in the Andes, spending a few days in that magnificent city. With our guide Cecilia we were roaming about the town’s outdoor market.
It was an interesting place where many of the indigenous people, their heads topped with the Panama hats that are part of their garb, were selling all sorts of foods and vegetables. (By the way, if you didn’t know it, Panama hats are made in Ecuador but were misnamed long ago because they were shipped out of Panama.)
We wandered about the market for about an hour, fascinated not only by bustle and riot of color all about us, but also by several types of vegetables we’d never seen before. It was a great way to spend the morning, much better than our visit to the market in Otavalo, which is a tourist trap. Cuenca’s market though, was the real thing and I don’t remember seeing more than two or three other foreigners in the whole place.
After the three of us had wandered down just about every little lane ogling the produce and the people, Cecilia asked us if we wanted to see the meat market. “Of course,” we replied, and followed her out of the open marketplace. The meat market was two blocks away she explained, because of the need to separate the butchers from the produce for sanitary reasons.
It looked like a quiet building from the outside, but when we stepped inside we found a hive of activity. There were lots of picnic-type tables set up around the periphery, all filled with people eating. The place itself was set on two floors and we followed Cecilia up to the second floor, which turned out to be a balcony that looked down upon the butchers below.
Around this balcony, though, were dozens of little stalls each with a woman serving slices of the giant pigs (the Porky kind) on spits, along with a side of fried potato pancakes. After one of the women gave us a taste it was quickly apparent that fatty pork was a popular dish here.
When we wandered back down and outside we came upon a line of women sitting about large round charcoal grills, each about the circumference of a large oil drum. Over them, impaled on large wooden stakes, were chickens and guinea pigs being slow-roasted.
These weren’t the small guinea pigs kids keep in cages in their bedrooms either, but monsters as large as a fair-size cat. Cecilia told us it was a local delicacy and each took about an hour to cook.
Although it was totally out of character for me, I asked Cecilia if we could try one. I glanced over and saw the look of horror on my wife’s face. “You’re not really going to try that, are you?” She asked. I told her that I heard about these and that I couldn’t leave Ecuador without at least trying one. I though she would faint.
It cost us eight dollars – – the US dollar is the legal currency of Ecuador – – and we took our little prize to one of the picnic tables. We were a bit dismayed that the head hadn’t been taken off as we had requested, but we proceeded with our taste test nonetheless.
Cecilia dove in first, showing us how to do it all. It turned out to be red meat, not white, and I was surprised at how little meet there actually was. It was almost like trying to get meat off a Cornish hen.
More surprising, was that it tasted like a cross between chicken and pork without being as greasy as what we had tasted earlier upstairs.
Alongside most of the tables sat a line of small, cute dogs that just stared at you, with no barking or growling or nudging you for handouts. I was fascinated by them, since when you tossed a piece there was no scramble to take it away from another, they all just sat there patiently and quietly waiting their turn.
I’m certain when we left, taking the other half of the meal to our driver, they were unhappy. Marjorie, on the other hand, was pleased to be moving on to sightseeing elsewhere.