Or “The Culture of the Latin Midday Meal”
You have seen a few pictures of food in our previous posts but I will admit, I am quite uncomfortable taking pictures while in a restaurant. So, there aren’t always pictures to illustrate what we are talking about. We hope that our words will paint the picture and get across our theme.
First of all, “almuerzo” is the Spanish word for lunch. But it has a much more specific meaning than just your midday meal when dining in restaurants, cafes, and even the market in Ecuador between 12:00 and 2:30 pm. It is a set plate complete meal costing anywhere from $1.50 (the cheapest we’ve eaten at the Mercado) to about $4.00 (an Almuerzo Ejectivo with a choice of 2 to 4 entrees).
Almuerzos always begin with fresh juice and a soup. Whatever is fresh and plentiful in the market that day will determine what kind of juice and soup will be served that noon. We’ve had strawberry, orange, guayaba, and some mystery juices. Soups we’ve enjoyed have been cream of vegetable, plantain, and a basic chicken soup.
The juice and soup courses are followed by an entrée that includes a small amount of some sort of protein (fish, chicken, beef, or pork), served with rice and plenty of it, possibly potatoes or a bean mixture called menestra, and a small serving of steamed vegetables or salad. Again, the entrée is determined by the imagination of the cook and what is seasonal and plentiful at the market. Our favorite entre was the fried chicken thigh we had at our Mercado lunch. Other meats have been stewed pork, grilled chicken, and chorizo sausage.
Finally, a small dessert (emphasis on small) – the postre – completes your meal. We have had everything from a fresh apricot to a tiny piece of cake with raisins. We find it to be just the right amount of sweetness to finish off the meal.
Every almuerzo table will have a small bowl of salsa de aji (pronounced Ah-hee). This is to Ecuador as ketchup is to the US. One might put aji sauce in their soup or on their entrée, especially the rice. At least that’s what Mara does. Glenn might add a little aji once Mara has determined it is not too hot! In our experience, salsa de aji is just about the only spicy food we have found. Some restaurants serving an almuerzo might have a small bowl of popcorn, steamed white corn called choclo, or fried plantain chips, on the table for you to nibble on before your soup comes, or to put into your soup. We get very excited when we are in a restaurant that does this!
We don’t always go out to eat an almuerzo at lunch time; sometimes we eat in or go to a restaurant and order off of the menu. Of course, ordering from the menu, one has choices but will always pay more and maybe it’s good and maybe it’s not. At any rate, for Ecuadorians, lunch is the big meal of the day and it is not meant to be wolfed down in 20 minutes like in the US so that you can get back to work. The only people working during almuerzo time are people who are making and serving almuerzo!
We have learned that students go to school quite early in the morning (7-ish) and are there until 12:30 or one, when they are dismissed for the day. At that time, most families go home for their almuerzo and rest time which lasts about 2 hours. But with both Mama and Papa working while children are at school, who will prepare the delicious and filling almuerzo for the family? In a wealthier family, perhaps the maid cooks the meal. In homes that include several generations living together whether in the same house or in a compound, the grandmother or other female relative might prepare the meal. But for some families, almuerzos are prepared by a neighborhood restaurant and each day a family member comes in with a large basket or bag filled with empty, reusable plastic containers. Within minutes, this person is on their way back home with containers full of soup, juice, rice, the meat entrée, and postre to serve and enjoy with his/her family. Tomorrow, they will be back with empty containers again to bring home the family almuerzo.
We observed this phenomena while dining at “Cantagallo” (singing rooster), a restaurant near our apartment. While we ate, person after person came in with their baskets and left within five minutes with their food. Most of the patrons did not stop to pay at the counter so we assume they are regulars and have an account with the restaurant for their daily almuerzos. By the way, there were quite a few others besides ourselves who were eating in the restaurant, even a large family group.
The experience of “Almuerzo” is one that we like a lot. If we had been living, working and raising a family in our younger years in Ecuador, we are sure we would have taken advantage of the “take out almuerzo”! What a wonderful concept! As a retired teacher, I am fully aware why breakfast and lunch are served in American schools. For some students, these are the only two guaranteed meals of the day. But wouldn’t it be lovely if families in the US could have a nice meal in the early afternoon like this? Then, because students wouldn’t have to go back to school, they could rest and play, do sports and other activities.
We know, we know. Who would take care of the children when Mama and Papa have to go back to work? In Ecuador, it appears that many children go to the small businesses owned by their parents and help/hang out. If the parents have office or professional jobs, probably the Abuela (grandmother) or other relatives pitch in. We can see a home across the street from our current apartment that appears to be a childcare facility for toddlers but we haven’t seen anything that looks like care for school age children.
For us retired folks on a fixed income (we can’t even believe we’re saying that!), eating out at lunchtime in an establishment that serves almuerzo makes a lot of sense. We save money while we enjoy the Ecuadorian almuerzo experience and discover new neighborhood places to eat. We didn’t eat out often when we were working and living in Alaska. If we did, it was usually for a somewhat special occasion. I suppose if you dine out often, you might get used to a menu that is the size of a Sears Catalog. I always was overwhelmed and usually ended up asking the server what they would eat right now if they were sitting at the table. Most of the time, if I took the server’s advice, I was not disappointed. Having the almuerzo at a restaurant in Ecuador is like that except I don’t have to ask what’s good. What’s good is what’s being served! We like it.
This post might imply that all we do here in Cuenca, Ecuador is eat. Well, not quite. In the last week, we have done a lot. Allow me to recap. We have gone to church, experienced our first parade (they happen a lot),
started rehearsals for the Cuenca International Chorale,
purchased our own cell phones for local calls,
met with our translator/facilitator to work out details for our apartment lease, began our Spanish classes, flew to the city of Quito for one day to continue the process of acquiring our residency visas,
got our bus passes (each trip is only 25 cents), shopped for our food, met with various people to play music, made some new friends, and walked a lot!
Our next post will discuss the process of finding and renting our new apartment and the details of setting up housekeeping in Cuenca. We will be moving our 9 suitcases and ourselves to our new place this coming week.
Here’s what we’ve learned: There is no such thing as a free lunch, even in Ecuador! However, there is no end of places to find good, fresh, inexpensive food and eat like a local.
Here’s what we need to learn: Walking in the midday equatorial sun is not a good idea! When the sun peaks out between the clouds straight down on us, it feels much hotter than temps in the high 60s!
And here’s what you need to know: If you have not followed our blog yet and would like to know when a new post has been published, you NEED to follow now! We have been sending out emails to our contacts, informing them of each new post. This is that last time we are providing that service because, frankly, it takes a really long time! We hope you like what you read/see and want to know more about our new lives in Cuenca. If you have had trouble following (and some have), we think the best thing to do is to use a laptop or desktop computer rather than your phone or other handheld device.
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