Ecuadorian cuisine with Rodrigo Pacheco
and his recipe for ceviche jipijapa

Bananatree_V2

Ecuador

Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and its fertile landscape the inspiration behind Rodrigo Pacheco’s restaurant BocaValdivia, located within the Tanusas Hotel on Ecuador’s Pacific Coast. The menu changes daily depending on the ingredients that Rodrigo and his team gather while foraging, harvesting and fishing. They see themselves not just as chefs but gatherers of the fruits of the land, working in harmony with the changing seasons and avoiding contact with corporate suppliers whenever possible. One of his finest accomplishments as a chef to date was reaching the semi-final stage of Netflix’s The Final Table, where he was able to showcase his radical approach to sourcing ingredients to a wider audience.

Have you always felt an important connection to the land?
“My parents had an orchard, dogs, chickens, and my mother was always baking bread, she never bought bread in the supermarket. I grew up with this connection to the earth and I established a deep relationship with the products. I tried to interpret the cycles of life. This started out of curiosity, then developed more into an academic goal. It has influenced me from my childhood and still influences me now.”

Was it at that early age that you realised Ecuador was such a biodiverse country?
“Yes, definitely. We all feel special about our countries, but I think Ecuador is a paradise - ~30,000 of the 300,000 species of plants on the earth come from Ecuador. That’s 10% of plant species, while Ecuador covers only 0.2% of the earth’s surface! Using this diversity is what I call ‘food of the future’, but with a question mark, because it’s also the food of the past. This is what makes Ecuador special to me. It represents this amazing biodiversity, but also has the advantage of this biodiversity existing over a small distance. 

“These microclimates, these areas of coast then tropical rainforests, cloud forests, The Andes with glaciers and volcanoes… you could cross all these microclimates in one day. That’s why I think Ecuador is amazing. Not only because of the biodiversity, but also because of the accessibility of this biodiversity.”

With so many potentially delicious foods available, have you ever come across something that looked edible but wasn’t?
“Yeah. We were going through this finca [a type of farm] and a local guy was telling us that this higuerilla [castor oil plant] was good for cooking. I ate some seeds and ended up having a very bad night. But even while feeling bad, I still felt good because I actually learned a lot from that experience. It turned out you could use the seeds to make oil, and use the oil for cooking, but the seeds themselves are poisonous when untreated.

“I also started learning about the original products of Ecuador, then I go out into nature to find these products. That leaf seams familiar. You take a picture, you check the pattern of the leaf, you investigate. It’s the same leaf, so the fruit is edible. You start to collect all this important information. 

Rodrigo Pacheco

Instagram.com/bocavaldivia

"You can learn how to make a sauce by watching a video on the internet, but the wisdom from nature is unique."

Rodrigo Pacheco

“Ecuadorian shamans know more than 5000 species of plants and all their combinations; that’s enormous. I invite you to list all the products you know from your culinary dictionary and write them down. Do you have 100? Maybe 150? How did these people learn 5000 species? They observe. They were out in nature, trying to understand the life cycles of the plants, of each and every species.

“I’m an apprentice of modern shamanism. I’ve been going out into nature, professionally, for eight years. I’ve acquired more and more wisdom. Knowledge today comes in a box. You can learn how to make a sauce by watching a video on the internet, but the wisdom from nature is unique. You can only obtain it in nature. You can only obtain it from the people who live in nature.”

Rodrigo went through what he describes as a reversed evolution. While we evolved from knuckle-walking apes to standing Homo sapiens, Rodrigo thinks that chefs should get closer to the earth once more, in order to see where our products come from. 
“I studied hotel management and culinary arts in France, so I came from France after working for Michelin starred restaurants, seeing the real good stuff. I was too straight up, maybe talking too loud, but slowly brought myself back down until I was touching the soil. That was the process of my evolution.”

Part of his evolution is to slowly move away from eating fish and meat. 
“We have a variety of poultry and guinea pigs, and we used to have some goats and pigs, and a few cows to milk. We don’t serve much beef, but when we do we buy it from local, certified farms. But I don’t like to be the mind that plans on killing something. When I fish, I feel like I’m hunting and that’s bothering me more and more. I try not to use meat and fish too often in my restaurant. Sometimes we sacrifice one of the geese from the finca, but we feed 40 people with it. I think that touches upon the essence of what we want to express. You need to connect with what you eat. As humans, we need 50 grams of protein per day, and we’re taking more than that per meal!”

Plated chontacuro in BocaValdivia

Instagram.com/bocavaldivia

Plated 'chontacuro' (palm tree worm) in BocaValdivia

But you do use insects in your restaurant?
“I don’t feel as guilty with insects, yet. Insects are a great source of food, but many people don’t eat them out of prejudice and funny emotions. If we direct our vision more towards nature, we wouldn’t be that bothered. Why do insects get left out? It’s a matter of perspective. It’s a matter of how deep our connection to nature is. In the Amazon region there’s a delicious variety of insects. In the highlands there are beetles that are also edible.

“Eating insects is not popular in the Ecuadorian society in general, but our ancestral foods include the use of insects in some areas.”

Restaurant BocaValdivia improvises with the ingredients Rodrigo and his team forage on a daily basis. The entire team is part of the foraging, harvesting and fishing expedition. 
“We’re very efficient; we can be in the ocean, in the mangrove, the forest or in the kitchen, all with the same team of people. It’s aso good to simplify the recipes, so our kitchen doesn’t use powders or texturisers. Our signature is the freshness of the ingredients and storytelling. We’re not just serving food - we’re serving experiences. We’re serving culture; even medicinal wisdom. We put a lot of effort into the final execution.”

Amazon rainforest

Amazon rainforest

Cooking without a menu, using what nature grants you - that sounds like it might be easier to pull off in Ecuador than in many other countries.
“It’s possible to do this anywhere! As humans we have the capability to adapt, to be resourceful and resilient. These values can be applied anywhere. Cooks have become too comfortable; they need their equipment, their ovens. They wouldn’t light a fire in case of a power outage. I learned to use electricity as a fun resource, not as a main tool.

“We can enhance textures and flavours naturally, but you need to know your product. A lot of famous chefs have never seen a banana tree, a cacao tree. They don’t know how long it takes to grow, when you harvest it, how you cut it, how you ferment it to make chocolate. Anyone can pick up the phone and order fruits and tomatoes. Easy-peasy. The hard thing is to actually get it yourself. To dedicate time outside the kitchen.”

Cacao tree

Cacao tree

This is also something that Rodrigo tries to convey to his fellow Ecuadorians.
“Many chefs in Ecuador stick to the same products. A few go on adventures to find different products, but mostly they care about the customer liking it. I don’t really worry about that - I worry more about getting the message across to as many people as possible.

“Agriculture moves mostly around 20 different crops, while we have thousands of species of edible products to choose from. That’s such a waste. Maybe the farmers don’t find it profitable to sell or produce these other crops. People from rural areas move to the city looking for a better life. They start working in the cities for low wages, with a low quality of life. In the end they have to sell their farmland. The new owners put chemicals in the ground and grow onions. We try to inspire others to use our strong biodiversity.

“It’s part of our mission: recycle, reduce, reuse, reeducate, redistribute, rethink. I’m trying to reeducate the locals and guests alike. There are one billion hungry people in the world, but we keep using the same crops, ignoring what’s available. It’s a vicious circle. I try to express myself in a way so that the people understand there’s an old and a new way to approach this. That cooking can be a transformational experience.”

Ceviche Jipijapa by Kuli-Kuli

The Dish

Rodrigo describes a dish that was a possible predecessor of the modern-day ceviche.
“One of the pre-Hispanic cultures that inhabited the southern coast - the Bahía - used to eat fish raw combined with salt and fermented chilli paste, served on a tortilla. There were no citrus fruits in Ecuador back then.”

Traditional ceviche consists of cured seafood using citrus juice. The citric acid in the juice will denature the proteins in the fish, which ‘cooks’ the fish lightly. 
“Ceviche is such a biodiverse way to cook because you can use anything you want. Vegetables, mushrooms, seeds, flowers, algae, fish, seafood, anything. The addition of peanuts is typical for the Manabí province. We eat peanuts with everything. It keeps you healthy and even works as an aphrodisiac. It gives a lot of nutrients back to the soil as well. It recharges the soil with nutrients that the next crop will absorb. It’s an interesting chain. The process of obtaining peanuts is amazing. To harvest, to cook, to toast, and then to make them into a thick broth to bring everything in the ceviche together.

“Ceviche is very present in Ecuadorian culture. Mostly on the coast, but in the rest of the country as well. Everyone likes it. Raw, fresh, sour and nutritious. There are no real special occasions when you’d eat it, but it’s a festivity to have ceviche with a beer. To enjoy the healthiness of the ceviche. It really represents our culture."

The Ingredients

400 g
fish fillets, the freshest you can find
250 ml
fresh squeezed lime or lemon juice
1
red onion
a handful
coriander
100 g
peanuts
60 ml 1/4
olive oil
salt
14 oz
fish fillets, the freshest you can find
1 cup
fresh squeezed lime or lemon juice
1
red onion
a handful
coriander
2/3 cup
peanuts
cup
olive oil
salt

The Recipe

Total preparation time: 20 minutes | Yield: 4 servings | Category: starter

The most important instruction for preparing the ceviche is that all the ingredients should be as fresh as possible. Don’t chop the onions and coriander beforehand, do it right before serving, and don’t let the fish ‘cook’ in the citrus for too long. Gather all ingredients on your workbench and be prepared to serve the dish within minutes.

  1. Cut the fish in strips the width of your little finger. Now cut very thin slices at a 45° angle. 
  2. Spread the cuts of fish out in one layer and sprinkle with salt. The salt makes the fish ‘sweat’ a little. This sweat makes it harder for the citrus juice to penetrate all the way through. You want to use the citrus to cook the external part of the fish, and to season the fish, while you want the inside to stay raw and tender.
  3. Add the citrus juice and leave for just a few minutes - no longer than it takes you to prepare the next steps.
  4. Toast the peanuts in a dry pan, finely chopping a few for garnish. 
  5. Prepare the onion by dicing it as finely as you can - it should be almost translucent. 
  6. Finely chop the coriander.
  7. Strain the liquid from the ceviche, keeping 100ml / 1/2 cup and mixing it with the olive oil, a pinch of salt and the whole peanuts. This is your ‘peanut broth’.
  8. Divide the fish onto four plates then drizzle the peanut broth on top. Sprinkle with onions and the chopped coriander. Add the finely chopped peanuts and serve immediately!
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