Growing up, I may have been the world’s pickiest kid. I honestly don’t know how my mom was able to cook for me for so many years. I ate hamburgers, but didn’t like meatballs. Sour cream was always a no-go, except for sour cream & onion chips. Cheese was only okay on pizza and nachos. Now, some of my favorite foods are things I never would have touched as a child (guacamole, onions, eggs, etc.).
My food preferences have changed a lot over the years, but especially since I have started my journey with the Peace Corps. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we have three main goals: to help the people of interested countries meet their need for trained men and women, to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served, and to help promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans. In order to succeed in all of these goals, integrating into the community is a crucial part of Peace Corps service. I will not be able to effectively serve my community members or share cultures if I do not fit in with my Ecuadorian neighbors and colleagues.
That being said, the best way to “fit in” in Ecuadorian culture is by sharing meals. Whenever possible, Ecuadorians eat meals together. Breakfast is usually eggs, bread, juice, and coffee/tea. Coinciding with Latin American culture, the biggest meal here is the almuerzo (lunch). Most Ecuadorians share this meal with their family at the house, or they go out to eat at restaurants. The meal typically consists of soup, a main dish (usually including rice and a meat), juice, and sometimes fruit for dessert. One of my favorite parts about almuerzo is the soup, which is often served with popcorn, fried plantains, or potato crisps. For dinner, most people typically just eat a smaller dish (again, usually containing rice and meat). In addition to the three major meals, cafecito is an extremely important part of every Ecuadorian’s day. This is a time for drinking coffee or tea, eating bread, and sharing stories, jokes, life advice, etc. with one another. Personally, I usually have my cafecito at the high school during recess with my co-teachers.
Thankfully I am not the same picky eater I was 10 years ago, but I still have very specific likes and dislikes when it comes to food. However, coming to Ecuador, I kept a very open mind about everything, including the food. In the United States, I was never a fan of hot drinks, but here I drink coffee or tea at least twice a day. Although I still stay away from most seafood and mayonnaise, I have definitely still eaten many foods that I would never have considered to order at a restaurant in the United States. I eat mushrooms, cauliflower, cheese, and broccoli on a regular basis now, even though I have never really liked these foods. (However, I can now say that I do like broccoli!)
As a result of stepping outside of my comfort zone, I also now have a few new favorite dishes here in Ecuador. Yapingacho is my all-time favorite dish here, which consists of tortillas (fried potatoes and eggs), meat, beets, and a fried egg. Another of my favorites is the traditional dish of my new city, Latacunga, which is called Chugchucaras. This dish comes with mote (similar to corn), fried pork, potatoes, fried plantains, empanadas, popcorn, and pork rinds.
The most interesting food that I have tried here in Ecuador definitely has to be cuy (Guinea pig). This dish is one of the greatest delicacies here, and it actually is very tender meat. Although it tasted like chicken, I could not stop thinking about all of the pet Guinea pigs I had seen throughout my life while I was eating it. Additionally, I was also a little sick when I was eating it, but I could not say “no” because my students had taken the time to prepare the dish for me as a part of one of their group presentations. I think that I have been able to build such great relationships with my students, host family, and other Ecuadorian friends because of the food that we have shared together. Here in Ecuador, sharing meals seems to be symbolic of sharing time together and sharing trust.
Overall, it can be challenging and risky to try something new, but anything worthwhile always lies outside your comfort zone. Sometimes I get sick from eating certain foods, but I also find new favorite dishes, make new stories, and build better relationships from doing so. I am having the adventure of a lifetime, but it would have never been possible if I hadn’t said goodbye to my family, friends, students, jobs, and way of living. I have officially been a Peace Corps Volunteer for one month now, and I have been living in Ecuador for more than 100 days. I have had some of the most incredible experiences of my lifetime (climbing volcanoes, eating crazy foods, meeting people from foreign countries, and teaching some of the most amazing students in the world). However, none of this would have ever happened if I had not taken the risk and got on the plane to come to the little South American country I knew almost nothing about.