Thursday, July 26, 2007

Face to Face with My Food

The first day in Quito, I wasn't quite brave enough for an authentic meal. I had an overpriced, but tasty bowl of fruit with yogurt and granola at a new-looking old-town cafe--one of the rare places that serves actual coffee, not NesCafe. Later I went to a supermarket and bought some bread, brie and avocado to eat in the afternoon. This turned out to be a bit expensive compared to what you can get in the little restaurants on every block, but it was safe for the first day.

Today I decided I needed to eat like a local, and boy did I. I walked around for a bit scoping things out. The price for a complete breakfast or lunch is $1.00-$1.50. I found a place that looked a little nicer, where you ordered at a desk then went upstairs to a larger dining room. When I asked if they had a vegetarian lunch, I got a quizzical "no." I kept walking and got distracted by an alley that led into a whole maze of narrow walkways lined with tiny tin-roofed shops selling just about everything a poor Ecuadorian might need--clothes, house wares, appliances, building materials.

Within this market was a block building of food stalls, the kind with tiled half-walls, a counter, and a table or two in front. I stepped in and was immediately assaulted by the voices of half a dozen women trying to get me to choose their stall. The closest girl got me. I asked if they had something without meat. As I expected, she offered me chicken, since only the flesh of mammals counts as meat in Spanish.

A few months ago, I heard an interview (on To the Best of Our Knowledge, I think) with a guy who decided for a year to stop saying no and always answer yes when a question arose. Even though I'm too cautious to imagine really doing that, I'm trying to be a little more open to opportunity on this adventure, so when she listed the options and fish was the closest to vegetarian, I went for it. She sat me at a little plastic table with a couple others eating lunch and I figured out that "buen provecho" is what you say when your sitting down to eat with strangers. She brought me a bowl of quinoa soup that wasn't too meaty, aside from the huge hunk of meat and bone in the middle. I ate the liquid and left the bone, probably to the horror of the little old Quichua woman who sat down to my right. The main plate was some soupy potatoes, and a bed of rice with a whole fish on top. It's slight breading did not disguise the intact fins and head.

I suddenly realized I'd never actually eaten a fish served whole and I wasn't sure how to do it. I'd only been given a spoon, so I assumed fingers were ok. It was very fishy. The meat came away from the bones surprisingly easily, and though I stripped the middle down to nothing but bones, I wasn't so thorough towards the head. I wasn't able to get it down to the ideal cartoon skeleton. It came with a tasty glass of limeade, which certainly wasn't made with bottled water. I hope my stomach is up for the adventure!


Elliot said...

You should consider taking pictures of some of the things you describe. I'm curious about both the alley and the meal itself.

Your tale reminds me a bit of "No Reservations," the show that Anthony Bourdain hosts on the Travel Channel. It's basically about food, culture, and how the two intermingle.

Craig said...

Yeah, I´m gonna take pictures, but I need to get a nondescript bag before I start carrying my camera around this place.