The Jungle

“Albert Einstein used to say that common sense is nothing but the accumulation of prejudices that we learn until we become 18 years old. Taste is no stranger to this phenomenon.”

“Ecuador: tradiciones de ayer para la mesa de hoy”, A. T.Pérez, M. Cepeda, H. Miño, ed. Universidad San Francisco de Quito 2012.


The planet’s lung diet should be rather pure, if this adjective can be applied to anything edible, it should be pure and terribly exotic. With this tropical expectations and a bit of hunger I arrive at Ecuador’s jungle region, which limits or melts in a green vision with the Amazon. I ate with surprise and almost none disappointment of the leafy larder, and these are the dishes or discoveries that I found most interesting:

 

Chontacuros

Despite its indigenous name, which confers it a halo of respect, lets not fool ourselves: they are worms. In fact, they are the kind of worms which picture one expects to see next to the “worm” definition in the dictionary. They grow in the Chonta palm tree, hence the name in quichua: chonta’s worms (curo=worm), they have a high protein level because of its natural fat, and, moreover, it helps healing tongue and throat infections, and it relieves asthma, cough and else miracles. Yes, but, you must be wondering, at what price? will the cure be worse than the disease? wouldn’t a normal syrup or a nice worm-free dish be better? The truth is that, once you overcome the visual revulsion, chontacuros are exquisite. Crunchy outside and creamy inside, their taste resembles the chinchulines (chitterlings). Such a shame we’ve been educated on bugs aversion, as edible as they are. More tolerance towards the insects, I claim under the motto Slimy but Tasty.

 

Maito

The Art of Leaf Cooking

Cooking in Leafs is something the Spanish did not bring, and, however, didn’t take with them. It’s something like the jungle corresponding to sous-vide cuisine, because the leafs are completely sealed so when you open them a delicious smoke bomb comes out, and everything is cooked in its juice. The leafs used are called Yaki-panga, very similar to the banana tree ones, and definitely heat resistant. With them they wrap the dinner and let it rest on the fire.

 

Quimbolitos

The quimbolitos are to the tamales what the rice pudding is to the paella. Not every dish has its sweet contrary, but the quimbolitos even translate to English as “sweet tamales”. They are made with butter, lard, corn flour, eggs, white cheese, sugar, raisins and aniseed, and are steamed in achira leafs. They are like little edible gifts, and the tender of the name relates to the tender of the sponge cake.

 

Palm Hearts

Not many people is lucky enough to try fresh palm hearts, and with fresh I mean just pulled out from the ground. In our supermarket world many times we ignore the origin of the food, specially from canned food. I still remember how surprised I was when I first saw a whole tuna, since I used to believe that what was fished were the cans from the bottom of the sea, ¡from the water to the larder! With the palm hearts the surprise was even bigger, because they are not too easy to find as they are native to the Amazon jungle, where one doesn’t take a walk around as often as one wished. Besides they are not always found even in cans due to the over-exploitation of the palm tree which grows right in the middle of the virgin jungle, and it’s not reforested as it should. Owing to this abuse Brazil stopped being the main palm heart exporter, leaving a clear road for Ecuador and Costa Rica.

Fresh palm hearts have a far more delicate flavor than the canned ones, which acquire a sour nuance due to the liquids that preserve them. In fact it’s such a soft flavor, that any strong company would eclipse it, so, in my opinion, it’s best partner would be the fish.