This was the week of food experiences, some good, some not so good and some outright hilarious.
Here’s one that was very bad:
Never assume that if the package shows a picture of tomatoes on it, that it’s tomato sauce. I tried to make a Bolognese and even though I was lacking porcini mushrooms and pancetta, I thought it wouldn’t be all that bad. However, turns out that what I thought was tomato sauce was actually catsup.
It was like some Appalachian version of pasta sauce. I betchya’ you could’ve found just such a recipe in an old “Hee Haw” cookbook.
Here’s a good experience:
Thursday night, we went for Indian food in Gringolandia. Both of us were craving curry, especially after what shall be henceforth known as The Bolognese Debacle. I have to say, it was some of the best Indian food we’ve ever had. It was way better than most of the stuff on Indian Row, save Ang on 6th. Not to go on about the cost of things, but two entrees, a naan and three beers only cost $12. I have to give a special mention of the naan. (I’d have used the phrase “shout out” but I’ve never been able to pull that off.) We ordered the garlic naan and we’re used to it being just naan with a little bit of garlic sprinkled on it. Well, this thing was STUFFED with garlic. It was awesome. And the spicing of the sauces was really sparkly. It was very delicious. Peter and I talked about it for the rest of the night. We felt like we had been fed a restorative.
See, Ecuadorian cuisine is only so-so. Wait. I’m being polite. It’s really awful. A perfect example of just how awful it is would be the cheese plate at La Vista Hermana. When they brought it out to us, we were both speechless. They used what looked like chunks of Velveeta cheese, the white and the orange. The meat looked like Oscar Mayer bologna. The olives were out of a bottle and the crackers were of course, Ritz cracker knockoffs. We couldn’t believe it. It looked like they had gotten all the ingredients at the Walmart. So, obviously, the food is not that much write to home about, though, Lord knows I’ve tried. Eating it can get pretty boring, which may be one reason why we thought the Indian food was so wonderful. I think I can now safely sum up Ecuadorian cuisine in just a few words:
The good: fruit drinks, especially guanabana, most soups (sans the chicken feet, ‘natch), the occasional empanada, humitas (a slightly sweet, plain tamale), fresh ice cream, avocados, the concept of amuerzos, ponche with brandy
The bad: Fried food, potatoes AND rice served together, canelazo (sorry Quito, I know you love to drink it, but it’s just too sweet), their ubiquitous beer (aptly named “Pilsner” and best described as Ecuadorian piss.)
The ugly: their idea of coffee, mystery meat (I swear, a couple of times, I thought I was chewing on shoe leather, just like Chaplin’s Tramp.)
After the Indian food, we wandered around Gringolandia, trying to find a place to have a beer. Turns out that the last time Peter went, he turned left when he should’ve turned right. There were tons of places, most of them awful, but there were tons of places. All of them were loud, brightly lit and over priced. Now, Peter, as a sociologist, tends to look at things one way, and I, being 47, look at them another. He looks at bad bars and sees a manufactured nightlife worthy of further study. I see bad bars not worthy of a minute of my time or a dime of my money. He finds the distribution of space and social props fascinating, I find the noise and drunken 20-somethings annoying. I am, apparently, a wet noodle, he is not.
We found only a few bars worth entering. One of them was an Irish pub called Finn McCools. Oddly, there’s a bar with the same name on Banks Street in New Orleans. I doubt very much one knows about the other. Many of the bar names, however, were named after some sort of sexual innuendo, like Doggie Style or Dirty Sanchez. Others were just blatant attempts at conjuring familiarity, like the Mexican restaurant called Red Hot Chili Peppers. They all looked like tourist traps. The Plaza Foch looked like a low-rise Times Square complete with taxicab traffic jams and a jumbotron showing advertisements.
The funniest place was a travel agency that advertised in English, “No worries, relax, very smooth, no trouble, enjoy.” Or something like that. It’s a pretty sad way to look at Americans. At the end of the night, Peter just had to hit one more bar and boy was it the worst. It was called Nosotros Bar (Our Bar) and while the music wasn’t blaring, the beer was more awful than anything I’ve ever had. It must’ve been that the local beer had just gone terribly, terribly wrong… or it was Budweiser on tap. During the cab ride home, the cab driver was talking about how he was part owner of that bar and how they want to make it into a real Ecuadorian bar experience for the middle and upper class. I’m not sure if he knew what that would look like because even though his English was pretty good, he was unable to really explain what he meant.
The next day, after class on Friday, we went to the mercado to get some fixings for dinner. Peter decided he was going to try to cook. However, I need to pause here to wax poetic about the freakin’ Mercado.
First of all, why the hell don’t we have mercados in the states? Especially in New York? They say the Chelsea market is like a mercado, but that’s just laughable. It’s a food mall, nothing more. And the Union Square farmer’s market? While I like it and all, it’s way overpriced and way overcrowded. The closest I’ve seen to a mercado in the states is in St. Louis. The Soulard Market is like a mercado… almost. It’s just not very big, it’s not every day and it certainly isn’t as rambunctious as a Latin mercado. The best one in the North that we’ve found is in Toronto, though, it’s pretty subdued too. The best mercado we’ve ever been in is the one in Guadalajara. You could eat yourself stupid in that place.
As you know, a mercado has all sorts of produce and meats and food courts; lots and lots of vendors for everything. Here, they have lots and lots of fruit. And some of the vendors are yelling at you and some are not. Some are trying to hustle you and some don’t. And the food courts are usually the best; extremely fresh, fast and cheap. That day, we had the sea bass special and Peter ordered a pitcher of a fruit drink with alfalfa in it. It was very green and very delicious. Luckily, it didn’t do anything to my guts so he didn’t have to worry that I was going to kill him in his sleep.
Anyway, as I was sitting there I was looking around at all the people and listening to the sounds and watching the interactions and there is such a feeling of well being in that place. Everybody is happy and chatting, the workers are gossiping, the produce ladies are cleaning their corn or their peas or wrapping their cleaned onions in plastic bags or whatever other little chore they have to do. A couple of stray dogs are usually sniffing around, looking for dropped food. A lot of men show up with a long list of things that their wives have written for them to get at the mercado. (Getting behind one of them is hilarious. They’re just reading from the list and they just let the lady pick out whatever it is and throw it into a bag. They rarely check the tomato or the pepper to see if it is bruised or otherwise fine and everybody seems OK with this arrangement.) The more often you go, you end up having your regular vendors and as you walk around, they always wave to you. The chicken lady always has a big smile for me.
She will probably never forget the face I made when she held up that half-cleaned chicken. The Chorizo lady always gives Peter a little sample of her chorizo. The potato lady always tries to sell us one more potato than we need. It’s endearing. I’m sure they’re all charging us a few cents more than they charge the locals and to us, it’s only five cents or ten cents. To them, it’s a good chunk of trollibus fare. And even though I know the produce isn’t organic or even locally grown and these ladies just work for the mercado or they rent out space and have their own suppliers, it’s way better than buying food in the states. Buying food in the states is a chore. It’s expensive, it’s riddled with plastic, it’s sterile and I find it to be generally unpleasant. Food should be inexpensive, it should smell like food and feel like food and if there’s a few germs here and there, so be it. That’s life.
Ugh, I’m dreading going back and having to walk into one of those hospital looking grocery stores with all the shiny overpriced stuff. (The store folks I miss most in New York are my butcher, Mike and his crew at Paisanos on Smith Street and my fishmongers, Alex, Chris and John at Fish Tales on Court. Those two places, and the guys that work in them, are the best that food shopping has to offer in Brooklyn; personable, fresh and professional.) (And no, I don’t miss Sahadis all that much. It was always too crowded. The guy across the street has basically the same stuff for way less trouble. Except for maybe the hummus, but I make my own hummus.)
Anyway, Peter’s dinner would’ve been fine had he just listened to me. I told him, in no uncertain terms, to only use ONE of the evil red peppers with the black seeds. So, you can guess what he did. He used two. It tasted pretty good, but I couldn’t eat it. He could eat it, but it didn’t look enjoyable from where I was sitting. His face was sweating so much, he looked like he was running a marathon in sweltering heat. I think he was trying to make a point.
Later, we went back to La Ronda to see how it was post-military canelazo/cerveza shutdown. What a difference. There was no more ribald selling of the canelazo. All the street vendors were gone and all the bar/restaurants that sold it were selling it very quietly and only serving inside their establishments. No more canelazo drinking in the street. It looked like Disney World. It was so bad, I had to wonder if Bloomberg had come down here to consult.
Why crack down on something so innocent and integral to their culture? On the way home, the piss on the sidewalks was overwhelming. Why not crack down on that? That’s offensive. People drinking canelazo in the streets is not offensive to anybody but a gung-ho Christian or a devout Muslim. I imagine everybody has to be offended by pissing in the streets, well, except for the pissers I guess. I’ll never understand the powers that be.
I’m glad we saw La Ronda the fun way, the way it’s supposed to be experienced. It’s like I’m glad I moved to New York in the 80s, during the Koch administration. It was still grungy, had a vestigial punk movement and felt fairly lawless. I’m glad I experienced that before Giuliani and Bloomberg got their hands on it. (I will never forget the time Bloomberg had flower decals put on taxicab hoods. Ostensibly, it was for some charity or something, but really it was because Bloomberg thinks the problem with New York is that it just needs to be prettied up. Man, that was stupid.)
The most interesting thing we saw in La Ronda was this young guy painting landscapes. Usually, that’s not all that interesting to see, street artists are a dime a dozen, but this guy used spray paint like it was oil paint. He was also pretty quick. I’m sure there are other artists with a similar technique, but it was sort of astounding to see his speed and alacrity.
And that’s the most interesting thing we saw in La Ronda that night. That should also tell you just how dull La Ronda has become.
The next day, Sunday, we had a hilarious food experience:
We looked all over for one of these places that the book mentioned. We wandered around for about an hour and we were just about to give up when we looked up and saw we were on the street we had been looking for. We found the place and went in. They didn’t seem to have anything the book mentioned as their specialties, like a quinoa tortilla, so we had to order from the menu. I ordered a carne crepe and he ordered, for some odd reason, the nachos con carne. When they brought out his nachos, I nearly fell out of my chair. Basically, they took a pile of Doritos (the bottom of the bag too, there were lots of little broken pieces), dumped some cooked meat on top and then placed what looked like a slice of partially melted American cheese on top. Doritos! I never laughed so hard at food. (Though, I will keep the ‘recipe’ in mind should I ever have to make junk food for teenagers. I’m sure they’d love it.) Then, they brought out my carne crepe. Now, I thought it would be some sort of crepe with an Ecuadorian spin, but mostly it was just a flat tortilla with what looked like meat from a tin (can you say “Dinty Moore”?) and a few chopped green peppers in it for color. It was terrible, truly, truly terrible. We had to go eat ice cream just to get the memory of that food out of our mouths.
This is our last full week in Quito and crunch time with the verbs. (Only eight more days of Spanish classes left. We leave on Wednesday of next week.) Also, it seems we have a few guests showing up this week. A colleague of Peter’s from UNO is coming down on Wednesday and will hang out with us for a few days before he takes off to the coast and Peter’s father said he wants to come down too we just don’t know when. (He could come in handy since he’s Cuban and hence, speaks perfect Spanish.) Also, once in Peru, another friend of Peter’s, his crazy artist/lawyer friend, Patrick, and his fiancé will be meeting us in Cusco for twelve days. (Outside of a few brief trips, he hasn’t really traveled outside the US since he was sent to Viet Nam!) We make our way to Lima for our flight home on the 30th of July. We might even get to see the Nazca lines when we fly from Arequipa to Lima! (Google it) I’ve wanted to see the Nazca lines since I read Chariots of the Gods when I was twelve.