An Englishman Eating Abroad; Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands.
Join Jesse as he bumbles around South America eating things.
A few years ago I went on an adventure of a lifetime. A biological research trip to South America, spanning Quito, Lago Agrio, Cuyabeno, and the Galápagos Archipelago. As a zoologist it was awe-inspiring, fascinating and quite literally blew my mind. On my travels I kept a field journal, detailing the species spotted, activities undertaken and the food we ate. And some of what I ate was rather different to what you normally find plated up here in the UK. So what follows are a series of excerpts from my book where I'm wittering on about food, and not frogs.
We pick up the story after a sunset swim in the Amazon and now we are back at the camp about to sit down to a tropical twist on a British classic.
"Back at camp we showered the river mud off and had dinner, accompanied with rice, a practice we would quickly become used to. Fish was the dish for tonight, an Amazonian take on Fish and Chips. The fish was similar to sea bream, and had been lightly grilled, sided with “chips” to use the American vernacular for the sake of completing the joke. To an Englishman they were clearly plantain crisps. As ever rice was heaped on the plate with vegetables too."
But jungle fish and chips was by no means the most exciting or bizarre dish I'd encounter. The next day we set out in canoes paddling upstream in the heat to go fishing for piranhas.
"We reached as far as we could go in the motorcanoes and so we unloaded into the paddle boats and set off pushing further up the river, the shallower channel meant we would occasionally become stuck on the soft mud of the river bed. However, by this point the heat was excruciating and the progress difficult, so we turned back. Determined to not miss our chance to find some piranhas we pulled up in the shade of the river bank to cool off having paddled for about half an hour. We pulled the boats onto the bank, but left half their hull jutting out into the water, fashioning a makeshift jetty from which to fish. Several of the group took turns standing at the stern with a basic fishing line and some beef on the hook, dangling it in the water hoping to catch one of these fabled fish.
In his diary from his Amazon adventure Theodore Roosevelt describes the piranha as “a short deep-bodied fish, with a blunt face and a heavily undershot or projecting lower jaw which gapes widely.” On his expedition when Roosevelt was travelling through Paraguay, on the evening of his second night in the jungle, his team stopped to fish and caught many piranha, or as he put it “cannibal fish, the fish that eats men when it can get the chance”. He goes on to say how they “will snap a finger off a hand incautiously trailed in the water: they mutilate swimmers”. Seemingly enthralled, he writes on about these fish, but finishes saying that their only redeeming feature is that they are “fairly good to eat, although with too many bones.”.
Eventually one of the lines snapped taut our guide, Lucio, pulled a dancing fish from the water. It’s fat red body twitching as it rose from the water. The powerful jaws clamped shut on a section of beef. Lucio pried the fish from the meat and grasped it in his hand. With the jaws locked open, baring the rows of razor sharp teeth within Lucio showed how pressing the fish’s gaping mouth to a twig the jaws snapped shut cleaving the twig neatly, an impressive show of speed and power as well as the sharpness of the teeth. I killed the fish and stood in the shallows gutting it with my penknife so we could cook it at camp for lunch.
Lucio, one of our guides with the piranha on the hook.
Lunch was another feast of fish and rice, and with the piranha to share. I would say that Roosevelt was right in his notes on the piranha with regards to eating it. It is a meaty fish with a strong tuna like taste, but there is little flesh on the body after grilling and there are far too many bones to make for easy eating."
I apologise massively for my nipple slip. And the awful case of sunburn that is blindingly apparent.
So piranha. Great flavour, not much meat though. Can't see it catching on really. Our next excerpt comes from the very next day in the jungle when we set off to visit a local tribe.
"The local villages receded behind us as we pushed further up the river. Soon we reached the meeting point with the shaman and the cassava plantation. However, the drier climate of late meant that the water level had dropped and our boats sat below the reach of the dock on the river bank, necessitating a bit of an awkward climb out and onto the platform. We were introduced to a local tribeswoman by David our guide and we set off following her into the plantation section of their camp. A few banana trees dotted the path to the plantation, and then we emerged into a larger space with spindly plants coving the open space. Neath these thinly stalked plants grew the cassava roots. The tribe women showed us the harvesting process of the plant. She grabbed the stalk of the plant and loosened the soil at its base with her machete before pulling the entire plant out of the ground. She cut the cassava root off leaving a little of it on the stem and buried the roots back into the soil. She did this to two plants, collecting a root from each. The roots were around 30 cm long and five cm in diameter shaped like a fat sausage with a dense white flesh coated by a tough bark like skin around half a centimetre thick. She went on to slice the skin off the tuber using the machete and turning it in her hand. Clearly something that she has been good at for quite a while given that she still had a full set of fingers on each hand. With the two cassavas peeled we left the skins on the floor as a compost for the next crop and walked back to the camp.
A small fire had been lit and was warming a ginormous metal pan about a meter and a half across. A chute had been placed under the shelter and a metal grating surfaced placed on each side of the chute. Instead of a metal cheese grater like tool, the locals used to use the skin from the black palm. The black palm has thick spines on its skin and these pierce the bark of the palm and when removed the bark is left with grater like holes that can be used for processing the cassava tubers. Members of our group had a go at grating the tubers on the metal sheets with the pulp collecting in the chute and the juices flowing out one end and getting collected in a pail beneath. These juices are then fermented to make a thick white alcoholic drink, similar in consistency to a fine milkshake or smoothie. The cassava pulp is then hand shaped into small patties and flattened out to a thin tortilla and thrown on the metal pan over the fire to cook. David our guide prepared a tuna and mayo ensemble to go with the cassava bread, nothing fancy but similar to what the locals would enjoy. While the breads cooked over the fire, we all received traditional face paintings from the Shaman, his son, or Lucio using a fruit with a thick brown pulp in it and a needle from a plant to apply the paint. The fruit used looked close to a horse chestnut or conker but with a soft pulpy middle as opposed to a harder nut.
After this we regrouped under the hut and tried a wine that is the starting point for ayahuasca, the hallucinogenic drink used by the shamans to get in touch with the spirits of the jungle for healing processes. But more on that later. The drink was sweet and very wine like, not dissimilar to glühwein in its spiced flavour. It was quite palatable. The same couldn’t be said for the fermented cassava juice, which tasted of very little, and a hint of raw potato. By now the cassava breads were cooked and we filled them with the tuna dish and lashings of chili sauce. The bread is best described as gritty in texture, with a very bland taste, but that went well with the flavour of the fish side dish."
This experience with jungle farming and cooking was something so far removed from anything I'd previously seen, and was fantastic. The basicness of the whole thing was a stark contrast to the restaurant kitchen I'd spent my summer working in.
The next food fable comes from Quito. We spent a day and night in the capital of Ecuador before transferring on to the Galápagos Archipelago. In this whirlwind tour of the city we stopped by a gelateria that is home to "500 flavours of ice cream"!
"After the museum, we moved on to one of Quito’s most famous ice cream parlours. Dulce Placer. Tourists come from all over to sample the rotating selection of 500 ice creams on offer here. On offer for us when we visited were the great flavours of Malibu, beer, the amazing taste of diabetes, yoghurt of death, dog poo and Viagra amongst the standard flavours like vanilla and so on. The amazing taste of diabetes wasn’t a sweet tasting urine sorbet, but actually a sugar free ice cream for diabetics. Yoghurt of death was a frozen yoghurt with a native berry called the berry of death in it. For a long time, it was believed this berry was toxic, turns out it is just a variation of what we would call a blueberry. The dog poo flavour was just Snickers, but courtesy of its bizarre colouring and texture had the visual appearance of canine excrement.
Viagra flavoured ice cream. Erection/ice cream jokes in the comments please.
The Viagra flavour is so named because of its use of extracts from a plant that naturally has Viagra like properties. I chose to try the beer flavour and the Viagra flavour. The beer one tasted exceptionally bitter, as though someone had purified the taste of a lager and made it into an ice cream. The Viagra was sweet but rather plain tasting, with no noticeable side effect. Often Viagra is used to ward off the effects of altitude sickness as well as reducing the risk of a pulmonary oedema."
Another oddity I was desperate to sample in Quito was cocaine. But don't worry dear reader, not the Devil's Dandruff, no, I wanted to find some of the pure coca leaves from which cocaine is made. Drag your minds back to when Clarkson, Hammond and May were driving across Bolivia in some clapped out old 4x4s and you'll remember them buying cocaine sweets to help alleviate any altitude related problems, and given that Quito is the world's highest city, sitting at 9350 ft above sea-level, I was starting to notice the altitude. So some friends and I dived into the market in search of cocaine.
"My final purchase of the evening was a handful of caramelised coca sweets and a bag of coca leaves. Yes Coca leaves. Leaves from the Erythroxylaceae family. The plants used for making cocaine. However, the leaves are readily available across South America, whole, dried like tea leaves or turned into sweets as they are used to treat against altitude sickness and as a stimulant like coffee. The alkaloid (active ingredient in the drug) is low in abundance in the leaves naturally at around 0.25% to 0.77%. My fellow adventurers Hal and Dan also purchased several of the sweets. We found them very moreish. The leaves have a bitter tea like taste and seemed to work as a stimulant and lessened any effect of the altitude."
Now out on the islands, our first stop was a tortoise reserve to get a closer look at the tortoises these islands are famous for. While there was enjoyed a lunch of coffee and empanadas. There isn't much written in my journal about these, but they have stuck in my mind as something I'd very much like more of. If Greggs existed in Ecuador I'm certain that they'd sell empanadas. For those of you who don't know, empanadas are a bread or pastry wrapped food item, typically savoury containing meat, cheese or corn. The name comes from the Spanish verb “empanar”, which means to wrap or coat in bread. Maybe I'll try and recreate them in my tiny studio flat, and if I do you'll no doubt find the results here on Foodtribe.
Next up is probably the dumbest thing I've ever tried to eat. A prickly pear.
"On the walk to the headland Hallam and I stopped, and I cut a prickly pear off of a cactus with my knife, cutting it open we thought we would give it a try. What we didn’t realise was just how covered in spines the fruit is and spent the next half hour or so carefully extracting and spitting out hair fine spines. Not a smart move by any means. It didn’t even taste good, with a tart taste and a composition similar to a pomegranate it really wasn’t a good snack at all."
Not worth it. The pain of a very tart fruit juice into fresh wounds hurts like a butt-cheek on a stick, and then to rub salt in the wounds very literally, we went snorkeling around the bay moments later. So, I cannot state this enough, DO NOT TRY TO EAT PRICKLY PEARS!
Pilsner. Does what it says on the... bottle.
A quick note on off licenses in the Galápagos. While they beer may seem prohibitively expensive at first, if you return the bottles you get some of your money back, which we found meant you could plough it into buying more beers. The result meant that on one of our empty evenings a group of us wandered from the hotel to an bottleshop, and then on to the beach where we lost track of time drinking the local brew, Pilsner. It's literally called Pilsner, and it is just that. For what it is, it is actually very nice indeed, and hugely palatable with a crisp taste and smooth feel. Think Carlsberg but nicer. Our final evening on the islands was spent as a whole group in a restaurant;
"That night we all met up in town for one last dinner as a group and to celebrate the birthday of one of our companions. It perfectly wrapped up such a fantastic day. Dinner was very good too. I chose to order the “Seafood Volcano” just out of interest, and chose to wash it down with, the beer of choice in Ecuador and the islands, Pilsner. When the meal arrived, it was exactly as the Spanglish had described on the menu. A large volcano shaped pile of rice with a thick, creamy, white sauce teeming with more seafood than we’d seen in the water. It hit the spot."
Mount Ve-seafood-ius. I'm not good at pun writing, if that wasn't already obvious.
The seafood tower was something spectacular indeed, in fact, the entire expedition was. It was the trip that got me into wildlife photography and travel writing. It was incredible. And the cars I saw on the trip were pretty cool too! But if you want to read more of my trip to foreign lands, and help bank roll my next expedition please please please please please buy my book. Please. It has pictures of pretty birds in it and everything.
What have been some of your stand out eats from adventures? What is the most obscure dish you've ever been served on your travels? Let me know in the comments section below.
Oh, and finally, mayonnaise crisps. They come with a sachet of mayo to go with the crisps. Not sold on the idea..