By Susan Burke March, MEd, RDN, LDN, CDE

Ecuador is tops for fresh produce, with a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and seeds, and more. Due to its year-round growing season and varied geographical districts, the flavors are diverse, depending on the terrain and soil — ranging from coastal to the Andes to the Amazon. Tourists and travelers come to Ecuador to explore the cuisine, and to eat more healthfully and freshly, and that’s why Ecuador is tops in my book! Here’s my list of top foods in Ecuador for nutrition and taste.

1. Cherimoya

Just stroll down Calle Larga and in season you’ll hear them crying “Cherry-MOY-ah! Cherry-MOY-ah!”. Vendors are pushing wheelbarrows full of unmistakable green, leathery-looking globes, covered with what looks like prehistoric scales. But pick one up and you’re find that it’s a soft skin, heavy for its size. The ripe cherimoya (also known as a custard apple in English) is a succulent, tropical fruit with a velvety interior, studded with black seeds (that you don’t eat). The taste is mild and sweet — some say the fruit tastes like a combination of strawberries, mangos and bananas – all in one bite! Wash the fruit, then just slice in half and scoop out the fruit, or peel and slice, discarding the seeds. It’s on the menu in fruit salads, smoothies, juices, and desserts.

Health & Nutrition: Cherimoya are packed with antioxidant vitamin C — a single medium-sized fruit contains 35% of the daily value of vitamin C, and is also has 5 grams of fiber, important for digestion, linked to lower blood cholesterol and stable blood glucose. Mark Twain called the cherimoya “the most delicious fruit known to man.” Avoid eating the seeds and the peel.

2. Red Bananas

Until I arrived in Cuenca, Ecuador, the only bananas I’d eaten were those long, skinny, yellow Cavendish bananas, which do not compare to the plátano rosado. Ecuador’s red bananas are far and away some of the most delicious fruits I’ve ever had. Cavendish are dry and tasteless compared to the smooth, silky, creamy, slightly orange flesh of Red Dacca (the official botanical name). Don’t miss them!

Health & Nutrition: Besides the great taste and texture, red bananas pack a nutritional punch. Like yellow bananas, they’re a great source of potassium and vitamin C, but the red variety are also very good sources of beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A) and magnesium. They are rich in soluble fiber, and one red banana contains 20% of your Daily Value (DV) for vitamin B6, which is necessary for protein metabolism and red blood metabolism.

 

3. Cacao and Dark Chocolate

I’ve loved chocolate since I was a little girl, but never saw a cacao fruit growing on a cacao tree until I came to Ecuador. You mean, chocolate comes from a big pod? How does that happen? It’s like I’d never tasted chocolate until I came to Ecuador. The flavor is so succulent and delicious, so different from the mass-produced candy and alkalized cocoa powder that I was used to. Now, I can never go back.

The unique cocoa, or cacao, of Ecuador is called Arriba or Nacional, and the production is a real labor of love: it takes dedication, clean water, and skillful hands to grow and manufacture this special product. Ecuador’s chocolate is renown worldwide as some of the best in the world. Chocoholics and aficionados come to Ecuador to tour the plantations, and sample the different varieties. BBC reports that chocolate tasters say that the aroma of Ecuador’s cacao is more complex, differentiating from floral and fruity to nutty, according to diversity of the terrain and equatorial location. To learn all about Ecuador’s chocolate production and enjoy the remarkable Ecuadorian countryside you must try TerraDiversa’s Cacao Train Tour.

There are at least two Ecuadorian companies, Pacari and Awari, who grow and produce the best chocolate in the world. They both offer organic, delicious dark chocolate, plus cocoa powder, cocoa nibs for baking, and dozens of different flavored chocolate, from salt, to peppery, to various levels of sweet. Seventy-percent cacao chocolate is delectable, and my favorite. Savor a small amount, slowly, not too much because even dark chocolate contains some sugar and fat. But enjoy, knowing that a small amount is even linked to satiety!

Health & Nutrition: Dark chocolate is made from antioxidant-rich cacao, protective against inflammation. Rich in magnesium, cacao also contains iron and calcium too. Dark chocolate contain flavonols, shown to help relax blood vessels and improve blood flow, lowering blood pressure, and observational studies link eating a small amount of dark chocolate daily (about 6 grams) to reduced risk for heart disease.

 

4. Uvilla Berries

Tart and sweet! How can a little golden berry be both deliciously sweet and tart at the same time? This fruit is native to western South America (archeologists think uvillas originated in Peru), and today are cultivated around the world including India, Australia and Malaysia. Known as uvilla in Ecuador, they’re also known as Inca berries and ground cherries; North Americans may have purchased Cape gooseberries in specialty markets, so named by English settlers who had brought them to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, where the berries were first cultivated. Enjoy uvillas sliced in green salads and in fruit salads, to top your cereal, or cook with your oatmeal. Because of their pectin, they’re great in yogurts, make wonderful jams, and are great in sweet breads and cookies.

Health & Nutrition: Uvilla are used in traditional plant medicine as digestives and anti-spasmodic. A 100 gram serving (about 3.5 oz.) of uvillas are very low in calories (only about 53 calories) but they pact a punch of nutrition, including 8% of your daily value for iron, 10% of thiamine, 13% of vitamin C, and 19% for vitamin B3. They have about 2 grams of protein per serving, and almost no fat. Uvillas are especially rich in pectin, fiber, and anti-inflammatory polyphenols and antioxidants.

 

5. Quinoa
I don’t use the term “superfood” casually, but quinoa is one of those inspired natural ingredients that are super-nutritious, and super-tasting too. Quinoa is the seed of an ancient flowering Andean plant, and has been cultivated in the cool mountains of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru for more than 4,000 years. It was considered a sacred food of the Incas, but when the Spanish invaded, wheat, potatoes and corn replaced it, and without it, indigenous people suffered nutritionally. Quinoa is making a comeback in Ecuador, and today it’s also cultivated in high-altitude areas North America and in Europe, Australia, China and Japan. Read more about what’s so special about quinoa in our blog and why not try our Quinoa Cooking Tour?.

Health & Nutrition: The superior nutrition is what sets quinoa apart from other grains. Quinoa has eight grams of protein per cup, and contains all the essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. Quinoa contains more than 20% of the Daily Value for protein and fiber, for several B vitamins including B6, folate, riboflavin and thiamine, plus it has good amounts of copper, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and iron. Quinoa even contains heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

 

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About Susan Burke March

Susan Burke March and her husband Ken live in Cuenca, Ecuador. Susan is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, certified diabetes educator and she specializes in prevention and treatment of diseases associated with overweight and obesity. Susan is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally – a fun and informative book intended to liberate serial dieters and make healthy living and weight control both possible and instinctual over the long term. Do you have a food, nutrition or health question? Write to Susan at SusanTheDietitian@gmail.com