Ecuador – Food: When Culture Conflicts with Values – by Abigail Blonigen. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
[Caption 1: Breakfast: Mote, a type of boiled corn or maíz, topped with tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers. Served with fresh juice, tea, bread, and tostados, or toasted corn.]
I have been a pescatarian for a little over a year, meaning I do not eat any meat except fish and seafood. Over the past few months, I had been eating fish less and less in order to transition to full vegetarian. I limit my dairy as well, though eggs are tricker as they’re a cheap and versatile source of protein. My reasons for choosing not to eat meat are simple: the environment and my love for animals. Animal agriculture is one of the biggest sources of global pollution, and the animals are more often than not living in horrendous conditions. In addition, it’s never made sense to me why we keep dogs as pets but eat pigs, another highly intelligent social animal, or why it’s not okay to eat horses, though there’s videos online of cows who can do hurdles as well. Giving up meat (for the most part) has freed me from this moral struggle, and it’s a great way to personally fight climate change.
[Caption 2: Soup is served with every meal besides breakfast. Sometimes it’s accompanied by popcorn, or canguil.]
I decided to delay full vegetarianism until after this trip because I knew it would be a struggle here. Vegetarians and vegans are far less common in Ecuador than in the United States. I’m not sure “vegetarian” means the same thing here, as people immediately ask me, “Do you eat fish? How about chicken?” My Spanish-English dictionary doesn’t have a word for “pescatarian,” so I don’t even try that one.
My host family knew about my diet from the get go, and I asked them right away if it was going to be problematic. They have been great thus far. I’ve been eating lots of tuna and eggs, as I don’t think they know what else to feed me. For breakfast, I usually have bread in some sort of bun/croissant form with jam or the peanut butter I brought from the United States. My host mom suggested I bring it as it’s not as popular in Latin America and it can be hard to find and expensive. My host mom makes me an egg, fried or scrambled, and some homemade juice: papaya, tamarillo, peach, grapefruit, mandarin, or a banana shake, among others. I usually have a cup of coffee and a banana or mandarin on the side.
Lunch at my house always consists of soup: tomato, quinoa, potato, mote (a type of corn), and countless others I cannot remember the names of. My host mom makes delicious soups with fresh vegetables and herbs. But here’s a twist: sometimes there will be a bowl of popcorn at the table. At first I thought it was a side dish, but I quickly learned you are supposed to put the popcorn or “canguil” in your soup. I had never heard of this, but it’s actually pretty good. The second course is always rice, an egg or some tuna, and a salad. Salad or “ensalada” does not mean lettuce and other vegetables topped with dressing as it does in the U.S. It means chopped up vegetables of any sort, usually without lettuce at all: cucumbers, broccoli, and tomato, for example, sometimes cooked and sometimes raw. Dinner is always leftovers from lunch.
Everyone’s host family cooks a little differently, so this is by no means the only typical Ecuadorian food. For example, my host mom doesn’t like spicy food, so we never have ají in our house: a spicy sauce made with tamarillos. Ají is considered a staple here, as it should be because it’s delicious. At a local restaurant, my meal consisted of of lentils, rice, beets, and radishes, not to mention eight of us dined on a three course meal for only twelve dollars total. My internship threw a pizza party and I tried mote (corn) pizza as well as banana pizza. I’d highly recommend the banana pizza topped with a layer of ají.
Overall, I do not feel as if I’m missing out on too much of the culture by not eating meat. It was a difficult decision: do I go back to eating meat so I can fully experience the food and the culture? Or do I stick to my own beliefs and values? The only meat that is really specific to Ecuador is “cuy” or guinea pig, which I would not want to try in the first place. I understand and respect the fact that here guinea pigs are food – they are farmed, they’re not domesticated, and they’re definitely not snuggly, but to me they are furry friends nonetheless.
Abigail Blonigen serves as an assistant editor for The North Star Reports
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31 responses to “Ecuador – Food: When Culture Conflicts with Values – by Abigail Blonigen. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports”
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Wonderful piece Abigail! I can relate to your experiences, however, in different circumstances. Last year, beginning in the Spring and continuing into the summer, I was a pescatarian too! I agree with your reasoning and, in fact, those were my reasons to: environmental/a person fight against climate change and for my love of animal rights. I believe there is a trend correlating between the wealth of countries and the number of people who practice a non-necessary diet. During the Spring 2018 last academic year, I began my pescetarianism and experienced some difficulties once I transitioned into the Summer when I lived at home. In college, I have the freedom to pick meals that don’t include meat in the dining center, however, at home I ate whatever my mother or father ate. This is where I had to make the decision, when we have a family meal, do I make my own food? To me this was a sign of disrespect to whoever already prepared the meal for me.
I am fascinated by the details you shared regarding the differences between food in Ecuador in the United States. If I didn’t hate popcorn, I’d be inclined to try it with soup. It is interesting to think about the way we pick and choose which animals to domesticate, and which ones to eat. My parents used to breed guinea pigs to sell in pet stores, and while I can’t imagine eating one, I respect the fact that other cultures make that choice. Is cuy a particular dish, or is it the word for guinea pig? If cuy is a particular dish, how is it prepared? Would you say it is a delicacy of sorts, or is it something eaten frequently?
Thank you for the comment & questions! Cuy is the word for guinea pig. It is usually cooked rotisserie style and served as the main dish. Though I wouldn’t quite classify it as a delicacy, it is more so reserved for special occasions. Particularity in indigenous cultures, cuy will be served for birthdays, weddings, and other cultural celebrations such as equinoxes. My friend had her internship at an indigenous-led urban farm while in Ecuador, and we had the chance to visit it as a group. The women there cooked us up an impressive meal, including cuy, so we’d all have the chance to try it. I respectfully declined, but those who tried it said it was good!
Once again I really enjoyed your writing. You do a wonderful job describing your personal experience in a way that allows us readers to almost experience it as you did. I believe it was important for you to relate your values as a pesc/vegetarian to your experience in Ecuador. How you were able to stay open to trying new things without sacrificing your own values, and allowing the hospitality and acceptance from the people in Ecuador.
Thank You for sharing!
Very relevant piece, Abigail. I too am transitioning into vegetarianism, and eventually veganism. Your article made me ask myself: would I resume eating meat while abroad for experiences sake? On one hand if I were to stick with my current diet I would be missing out on a very prominent part of the culture wherever I am, should I be putting limitations on an experience that is meant to expose me to different things? On the other hand, I would feel guilty for betraying my beliefs. I would like to think my convictions are strong enough that I would still maintain my diet and not feel as though I’m giving up an experience I’ll later wish I hadn’t.
Thank you for sharing your story, I find it interesting to learn about other cultures. I am from Canada and although not much different in the food portion from the US there are bigger portions here and some different food. It is amazing how different some places are like no peanut butter! Did you find yourself having to make yourself like certain foods because that is what they put in front of you?
This article is very sweet and heartfelt. There is something about food that really brings people together. I am also thinking about what eating in Ecuador will be like when I visit in the Spring because I am a vegetarian. It is nice and reassuring to hear that you did not go hungry and all the food photos look amazing. I also agree that going to a new place is all about experiencing a new culture and diving into all the normal functions in life. I love that you brought your own peanut butter and may have to remember that tip for the future. For the most part it sounds like you tried what was offered to you while still maintaining your morals about eating certain meats.
Thank you, Abigail, for sharing your experience. It seems to me that a love of food is one thing that brings people from all cultures together. It is also amazing how important food is in the act of learning and experiencing a new country. I will have to try the popcorn in soup. That sounds pretty interesting. I am glad that you have been able to find ways to enjoy the food of Ecuador while still staying true to your personal values. I hope that you will continue to enjoy your time there!
I really enjoyed reading your article on the food in Ecuador and your personal dilemma between sticking to your values and wanting to enjoy the culture. My sister is doing the same thing as she is trying to live a more vegetarian or vegan lifestyle now. I really enjoyed the reasons you chose for starting your path to vegetarianism and being a pescatarian, I had never thought deeply about the idea why we keeps dogs as pets but slaughter pigs to eat. I’ve tried to turn to becoming a vegetarian but discovered it was expensive and hard to prepare meals when I am so busy with class, work, and all the other things I am doing as a college student. It made me happy to read that your host family was accommodating to your values and that you are still able to enjoy a lot of the food Ecuador has to offer. Lastly, guinea pigs being a food and meat commonly eaten in Ecuador made me chuckle at first because I had only ever figured them to be cute little bets and it made me wonder how big are these guinea pigs?
Thanks for sharing Abby. I respect your decision to become a vegan, I will always respect a person whom sticks to their decisions and is able to back it up with a logical argument. I find that many people I meet that are vegan or vegetarian are doing so for a reason that is very skin deep, or for specifically pursuing a romantic interest funnily enough. You clearly understand the body’s nutritional needs, I understand a little bit what it means to try and find alternate sources of nutrients when something becomes unavailable due to dietary restrictions. Keep at it and have a long life.
I really appreciate your story of your great experience in Ecuador! The food of Ecuador really shows the ideals and customs of the unique culture and individuals who live there. Personally, I find it interesting that they eat Guinea pigs in Ecuador because in the United States they are seen as pets. Still the food sounds amazing especially the corn and banana pizzas which sound really good. Overall, your host family sound like amazing people who try to make meals that go along with your vegetarian diet. I’m sure that you will create fond memories of Ecuador that will stay with you forever.
I definitely understand and respect that you took a stand for what you believed in and stuck to it. Although you may have thought about trying meat to fully have the exotic experience, I think having a choice about what types of food to eat and seeing how it is cooked is experience in itself!I think it is important to realize that when you arrive in a foreign country, you will be tested in some way or the other. Usually not in extreme ways but you will definitely come out of your comfort zone (eg, seeing guinea pigs being eaten) but it really contributes to you growing as a person. Thank you for sharing!
I think it’s great that you found a way to enjoy the food and culture in Ecuador with a different diet. Also, I think it is wonderful that your host mom was so willing to help you with that. I appreciate your bravery and willingness to try banana pizza. I don’t think I would be able to do that! Food is such a large part of culture, so I glad you got to experience it!
Abby, thanks so much for expanding on your food experience! Overhearing the bits and pieces of your story is much different than reading it like this, so I am really glad to have this chance. I knew you were working on vegetarianism before you left, so I was also wondering if you would part with that for the sake of a cultural experience, but I am so glad you did not. The strength of your morals and what you value can be tested every time you utter a word about your choice to be a vegetarian, so trying to explain that cross-culturally sounds like an even bigger struggle. I’m glad that you were able to still embrace the culture without sacrificing your values, but I’m wondering, was the reaction to being a vegetarian in Ecuador better or worse than what you’ve experienced in the U.S (a couple years ago, I too would have asked you incredulously why you’ve given up meat, but I understand now)? Is there a food that was really accommodating to your diet there that you wish was more common here? Do you think that if you went back to Ecuador after you’re used to an entirely vegetarian diet you would continue to eat eggs and tuna to find balance with protein, or do you have more creative ideas to implement in the types of food you experienced there?
Having a different diet than the people around you is difficult in the US, let alone in another country where you are unfamiliar with the available and affordable food options. My friend is pescetarian trying to transition to vegetarian as well, and, even on campus, has a difficult time finding different food options. From talking with her, I know it’s not an easy task. Nonetheless, I think it is important to stick to your values while respecting the culture of the country you are in. From your article, you did exactly that splendidly. If you go to Ecuador again, what would you do now that you wished you had done before your study abroad experience to make being pescetarian a little easier?
Thank you for sharing your experience abroad! I went to Ecuador with a friend who was vegetarian and it was definitely a new experience for the waiters to understand that she never ate meat! I tried the guinea pig while I was there because the whole group I was with bought one. It was a different taste and part of me felt bad for eating it. I have never heard of putting popcorn in your soup but I would definitely try it! I love hearing about your experience in Ecuador so thank you for continuing to put out new articles!
I wish i could not eat as much meat because of the pollution aspect of it. But i feel like i rely to much on beef to get me through my time in college. I am hoping that after my time in college that i could make the switch to cutting out more meat. I do love how they are so willing to work with you, and also how they were confused with how to help you. I know that peanut butter is a food that is only really big in America. Because i have been told that it is very similar in Russia and most of Europe.
I commend you on the balance you had of your values versus those of the Ecuadorian culture so that both could be respected. I am sure it was quite a challenge sticking to your diet when you are in a place where most people haven’t heard of a vegetarian or pescatarian. I myself have never known someone to be either so I enjoyed learning your perspective and I can completely see the merit in choosing either diet. I relish the chance to be able to bridge two cultures together with such harmony as you did. I also did not know that Guinea pig was consumed in Ecuador and while that a piece of their culture, I do not think I would ever be able to eat one myself.
Food is almost always the highlight of any trip I go on so it was a delight to hear about your adventures with the new food from the country you were visiting and your previous preferences. I think this was also a great example how certain meals have come into existence throughout history by different cultures coming together and intermixing their preferences. Also, I was unaware that there was such thing as farming guinea pigs! My mom has them, and although I find them to be rather boring entertainment, I never would have thought people ate them! It is unique to experience what we consider out of the ordinary to be the norm in other places. Thanks for sharing!
Hello Abigail, very interesting to read about the food you ate during your time in Ecuador. I felt as if I was with you at the dining table as I read your article (or maybe I was wishing I was at the dining table as it is close to lunch time). I must admit I have never heard of most of the food that you mentioned, but it sounds delicious. I also must admit I have never thought about the limitations that one may experience based upon certain dietary restrictions while traveling. I respect your decision to stick with your values and not curve your diet during your time abroad. It is also great to hear that your host family was understanding of your diet and supported you in your decisions. I think we as a country are becoming more aware of the dietary restrictions of people, as many people cannot eat gluten, certain dairy products, or may adhere to a certain diet based upon religious or personal beliefs/values.
It must have been a tough decision when deciding on whether to fully immerse yourself into the culture or stand by your own beliefs. I don’t necessarily think that you have to try meats in order to fully experience the local cuisine in a foreign country. As long as you are open to understanding what it is and still eating everything else, I think that is fully immersive. I couldn’t imagine how much of a culture shock it must be when you find out what the meat is. I feel that it would be interesting to try other types of animals including ones that may be domesticated here in the United States. I have never before thought of dietary restrictions on a traveler and if that means they are not fully immersing themselves in the culture. Great article!
Really interesting piece about your determination to stick to your values. I give you a lot of credit for even being able to do this at home, let alone another country! I know for a fact that I would not be able to do this. I respect other’s reasoning as to why they pursue vegetarianism, I just don’t think I could do it. I always love hearing about other culture’s food because I think I myself is addicted to it. I enjoy watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and this reminds me of an episode of that. The popcorn in the soup dish sounds pretty good to me actually, I think I may have to try it! Anyways, really informative article, I enjoyed it.
I found this post to be incredibly relatable. Food is such an important piece of culture, whether it be within a nuclear family or an entire nation. Food within my family’s culture is something I have been thinking more about as I grow older. The paternal side of my family values making food from scratch and holiday meals are never from restaurants.The maternal side of my family does not place importance on making holiday meals and instead often goes to the few restaurants that are open on major holidays and eats from there. I believe partially that this difference stems from the value of working for your food that accompanies the agricultural occupations most of my paternal side holds. My maternal side is much more focused on material things, and so the time spent to make meals is not as important as on my paternal side. As I grow older, and those that make these meals for holidays are entering old age, I find myself valuing the food more and wanting to learn to make these foods in order to continue the traditions. I found your comments about food to be intriguing, and really interesting as most of my experience with Latin food has been Mexican food, wherever I can find it authentically in the United States. Thank you!
Thanks for this article about both your struggle with being a pescetarian in a society where it is uncommon and for the informative descriptions about the Ecuadorian cuisine. Every time i hear stories about the foods of cultures that I’m not familiar with I’m astounded by the great disparity in what we put on our dinner plates in different parts of the world. It is also eye opening to see that unexpected combinations are possible, such as putting popcorn in soup! I think your article also highlights how much our own cultural glasses affect our perceptions of what is considered acceptable food and what is not. Your example with the Guinea pig is illustrative, I too would have a hard time eating one but I can see that if one is brought up with that being perfectly normal, there would be nothing strange about it. Perhaps what we eat is a larger part of our cultural identity that it seems at first glance?
Hello Abby, it was really nice reading your article. Just reading about your experiences I can only imagine the adjustments you had to make in order to get through. one thing that caught my attention is the statement “dinner is always leftovers from lunch”. That to me is very interesting and empowering. By making speculation, I can assume that your host family did not see the need to either to make a new meal when there were leftovers. Or can it be the notion that they simply want to waste food? Which makes me wonder did your host family intentionally make a lot of food so that there are leftovers?
I really enjoyed learning about your experiences in a different society. It taught me how different each culture can be different from each other as well as it is similar. I did not know that guinea pigs are food in South America because here they are seen as pets and eating a pet is seen as very strange and not normal.
This was very interesting to read about your personal experience in Ecuador with food. I have recently returned from studying abroad there too and am also a vegan so I can relate to much of what you’ve mentioned in your article. I respect and support your ability to stick to your beliefs while you were there despite any difficulties you may have experienced, especially considering almost all typical Ecuadorian meals contain meat.
During one of my field trips I stayed with an indigenous family and we discussed the treatment of animals in commercial farming compared to the treatment of animals in their own community. In the conversation the family told me that they don’t consume meat as much as people in the cities – typically only for special occasions – because they only eat what they grow and raise so that they know where it comes from and that it is raised properly. I think that discussing the topic of food and where it comes from is very important and I really appreciate you sharing your perspective.
This was a very interesting article to read! My favorite articles to read are about meals from different cultures. Eating traditional Ecuadorian food around a table really builds community and gives you the opportunity to experience culture in a different way. I have recently been accepted into the Ecuador study abroad program for the fall of 2019. I have learned that it is very common for Ecuadorians to eat guinea pig. I am very open to trying new foods so personally I am excited to try it when I am down there! Thank you for a great post.
Culture conflicting with values is the perfect way to describe your experience. I have struggled with the decision whether I should alter my diet for environmental reasons and your post makes it seem easier than I have previously thought. Because food is so cultural, I understand the delay to go full vegetarian as a way to be more involved in Ecuadorian culture. Being able to take in as much of the culture you’re exposed too is crucial when visiting new lands. I think that your host family is super accommodating as well! For not knowing what to expect, they sound as if they’re making an effort to make you comfortable in your new home.
I loved reading about all the different cultural experiences you are encountering. I am also very glad that you don’t feel as if you are missing out on experiencing their culture, because you are clearly trying out a lot of their different foods and ‘staples’ they value. I have gone to one restaurant in America where they served popcorn in the soup – and it was amazing! The textbook Worlds Together, Worlds Apart highlights the idea of taking on new ideas and ways of life. For example, the Vedic people were constantly migrating and encountering new groups of people. Once they came across native locals, they took some of their farming skills and knowledge of the weather and adapted them, even as they continued to expand their territory (Tignor et al., 2018, p. 100). I think you have already learned a lot by being immersed in that culture, and I believe there are many ideas/practices that you can take home with you and share with your friends and family back home!