by Esme McAvoy
Anyone fancy a freshly whizzed up tree tomato, guava and alfalfa juice? Or a bag of knobbly pink potatoes perhaps? Or a half kilo of purple maize flour the colour of Parma violets?
Finding the local market is always top of the to-do list when I arrive in a new town or village. In the Andean mountain countries of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia especially, the markets are the heart of a village, where hundreds of locals converge every morning to buy and sell their fruits, vegetables and grains or eat a full cooked breakfast before a hard day’s work in the fields.
Later, more hordes arrive to wolf down a generous set lunch of, perhaps, home-cooked quinoa soup served with a bowl of popcorn in place of croutons, followed by a plate piled high with rice, bean stew, boiled new potatoes or hunks of yucca and salad, washed down with a fresh papaya or mango juice – and all for around $1.50. The good news is it’s not too hard to make a fresh vegan market lunch. There are always at least a couple of women with mighty saucepans of tasty bean stews or lentils with plantain bubbling away, these are great sources of meat-free protein! And, also always available are the sweet golden plantains or mighty, dense corn on the cobs toasted over hot coals or boiled and served in their leaves.
Much of the colour and bustle of the markets are thanks to the traditional cultures of the indigenous peoples - descendents of the native people living in South America long before the Spanish ‘conquistadores’ arrived in the 1500s. In Colombia, indigenous people make up less than two percent of the population but in Ecuador over a quarter are indigenous with a further 65 percent of mixed European-indigenous heritage. This higher indigenous population, with their tradition of cultivating the slopes of the Andean mountains, means the markets are an incredible sight, stacked high with a diverse array of fruits, vegetables and grains but also chock-full of locals from surrounding indigenous communities, identifiable by their traditional clothes. The men are often in brightly coloured, hand-woven ponchos, the women in reams of golden beads and striking bowler hats adorned with an elegant peacock feather, though every indigenous group has its own distinctive dress.
After eating my way round some of Ecuador’s biggest markets, I thought I’d share a few pics. Of rotund women in the spa town of Baños, cooking up cheap but wholesome lunches; of hessian sacks bulging with colourful beans and huge array of maize flours. Of women in the northern market town of Otavalo who awake before dawn to cook up simple vegetable stews, of potatoes and spinach or broad beans with tomatoes, corn or quinoa which they bring to the morning market in mighty saucepans wrapped carefully in hand-woven fabrics to keep them warm, ready to serve it by the plateful to passers-by for less than 20p. Of baskets of rustic, home-baked breads or, one of my favourite street snacks in the capital city of Quito; a bag of ‘motes’.
Women fill a bag with a ‘pick n mix’ of different grains and beans. A spoonful each of slow-boiled kernels of giant corn, baby potatoes, broad beans and cream-coloured soya beans go into the bag first, followed by crunchy kernels of toasted corn with chips of deep-fried plaintain and topped with a spicy salsa of tomatoes, red onion and fresh coriander. You mix up the lot and eat it with a spoon.
No Ecuadorian market in the Andes is complete without the national specialty: cuy. Cuyes are a type of guinea pig and in Ecuador they’re considered a delicacy, blow-torched to a crisp and served whole, head, feet, teeth and all, atop a plate of rice. The torching cooking method usually leaves the creatures like hardened statues, their mouths wide open as if they’re still squealing. Enough to send anyone vegan, a cuy could be just the ticket.
And there’s always a row of ‘jugo’ or fresh juice sellers. Each stall is fronted with a line of tall glass jars filled with a rainbow array of different coloured fruit juices, from pink guava, golden mango and pineapple to the more exotic white sweet juice of the guanabana fruit or lime-green acidic lulo, or deep-green juice of alfalfa. Enjoy a mixture of two or three juices blended up as a refresher after a long market wander. Every jugo seller whizzes up at least double portions so, once you’ve drained your glass, don’t forget to wait for a refill with the extra - and then people-watch to your heart’s content.