Noah Klein-Markman ’13 is currently studying on the Duke in the Andes program. Reporting from Ecuador, he outlines some of his most memorable foreign dining experiences—roast pig and all.
Otavalo: Agricultural Market
One can’t stay hungry for long walking around the mountain town of Otavalo’s Saturday agricultural market. The minute I turned the corner onto the narrow market street, mounds of fresh bread, blackberries, giant squash, and spiky fruits caught my eye. A man selling coconut milk slashed the shell with a machete, and two tiny old ladies bargained over the price of a large sack of yucca root that one of them had miraculously slung over her shoulder.
From my place in the market, I looked down the road. A roasted pig stared me dead in the eye. I walked closer to introduce myself. About ten feet away, the smell hit me. It was so rich, thick, and meaty, it could bring the carnivore instincts out of anyone. The pig was lying in a large pan, heated by a fire beneath, cooking in its own juices.
The pig’s owner used a specific process to prepare the meat. First, she took out a small yellow plastic bag. (Practically everything comes in plastic bags in Latin America, even ice cream and hamburgers). She filled the bottom layer of the bag with “mote” (large grains of corn that have the consistency of potatoes). She then added salsa—in this case, a mix of spicy peppers, tomatoes, onions—along with fried potato pancakes (just to be clear, they’re not Jewish latkes because the potatoes are mashed rather than shredded). Finally, the pig. She reached deep inside its body through a hole sliced through the belly. Her hand emerged with stringy pork meat, which she then soaked for about a minute in the pig’s hot oils. When she added the dripping pork to the bag, its juices soaked everything. The bag costed $1.50. I splurged and bought the $2.00 plate, which came with more meat.
The pork was a great meal. I wasn’t hungry after, but since I originally aimed to spend three dollars, I got to search the market a little more. My last dollar bought me a good–sized bag of green beans, some fat purple carrots, and a half-a-pound of blackberries for dessert.
As I walked further down the road, I knew I was getting closer to the animal market because the smell of manure became increasingly prevalent. There, venders showed off the quality (in terms of meat content, not cuteness) of their guinea pigs, picking them up casually by the heads, spreading their legs, and giving them a light shake, saying, “One for two dollars, three for five.”
I was full and had already spent my three dollar lunch limit so I wasn’t particularly tempted to buy one, but I will keep that option in mind for the next time I’m in Otavalo.
I was drawn in by the sound of live music. Standing on the entrance stairs, two men in large sombreros were playing salsa on their acoustic guitars and singing in harmony. I walked inside the large concrete building and was immediately met by the powerful smell of spices—the herbal medicine section. As I was looking at the strange fruits, nuts, roots, and leaves, I bumped into a remarkably short lady carrying a tray overflowing with pink roots. “Good price,” she said, as she stretched her neck to look up at me.
“What are they for?” I asked. “Open wounds,” she replied, breaking a small one open to show me the liquid that oozed out.
The market seemed to go on forever. I passed the fruit section, the underwear section (though, unfortunately, regular good-old boxers do not exist in Latin America), and the pork section, before finally arriving at a room dedicated to serving lunch.
There was nothing particularly unusual about the meal I ate here. But it was cheap and satisfying. I went up to a small counter and asked for whatever came in the “complete lunch.” It turned out to consist of a spicy, creamy, and lemony soup with mushrooms. Then a gigantic plate arrived. Despite the size of the place, the head and tail of the fried fish still hung over the edges. The fish was accompanied by rice, a salad, and mini potatoes. It came with a glass of coconut milk. Total: $2.50.
Quito: CHIFA, Chinese food
After almost five months in Latin America and living primarily off rice, beans and yucca, I jumped at any opportunity to eat something that might remind me of home. So as I was hungrily walking the streets of Quito, a cheap Chinese place drew me in. I sat down and ordered the combo #1, (wonton soup, “mixed” fried rice, and soda, for $2.60).
The place was packed, and the crowd seemed to come from a variety of backgrounds. After a few minutes of waiting, something struck me as odd. People would come in and sit down with someone who appeared to be waiting for them. A man in a business suit would sit with the other man in a business suit, the construction workers would sit with other construction workers, the elderly women with other elderly women. After acknowledging each other’s presence, they would sit in silence as they waited for the food to arrive.
As I was watching this go on, two old men approached my table, nodded at me, and sat down in the empty seats. Both men wore beat up baseball caps (Dodgers and Yankees) and had serious gray moustaches.
I took another look around the room and did the math. All the tables had people. Guests kept coming in and sitting down. And there was no waiting line.
Well, this certainly didn’t remind me of home. But how often do I eat lunch with random old Ecuadorian men?
When I told them what I ordered, they told me I was missing out. And when I asked why, they said “you’ll see.”
My food came first. A bowl of wonton soup bigger than my face. I dug up shrimp, chicken, pork, beef, and even a clam from the depths. Then came a mountain of fried rice. I knew I had no hope of finishing; when my tablemates saw me slowing down, they gave me a disapproving look.
A massive plate stacked with crabs arrived at the table and saved me from their judgment. The crabs were certainly a sight (and a smell). But what really drew me in was the skill with which the men ate them. They were clearly veteran crab eaters, though they didn’t seem to mind the extra pieces that stuck to their moustaches. “Years of practice” is how they responded when I complimented them on their abilities. Mr. Yankees-hat offered me a claw.
Two Take-Home Lessons from My Experience
1. My host mom had been telling me for days that she was going to make me American French fries. I was excited, as was she. The day finally arrived. The plate was on the table: a large pile of French fries, white rice, and a small piece of beef. She asked me if I wanted ketchup. I said yes. She than proceeded to pour the ketchup all over my rice, without adding a drop to my dry French fries. Lesson: be careful who you trust with ketchup in Latin America.
2. In the Amazon Rainforest, inside the small branches of a certain tree, live “lemon ants.” Break a branch off, open it up, lick, chew, and you will taste them. I can vouch: they’re really tasty. Lesson: you can survive in the Amazon jungle. They’re pretty small ants for a good bit of searching, so you’ve gotta have a serious work ethic.