I have liked sweets ever since I was a little girl, especially homemade ones. I remember when I lived in Nicaragua, I met several families that made traditional sweets from the area for a living. In a big pot, chopped up fruit, sugar, and other ingredients were constantly being stirred while I smelled the spices and felt the heat emanating from the kitchen.
Movies like Julie & Julia and Ratatouille as well as Laura Esquivel’s (Mexico) book Like Water for Chocolate demonstrate the love that many people have for cooking.
At the end of August I visited the Traditional Sweets Fair in the Museo de la Ciudad (City Museum) in Quito and interviewed some people who have been making traditional sweets for years.
Gladys Morales offered me the traditional Ecuadorian pristiños, which are made from flour, butter, and water, as well as buñuelos made from milk, eggs, margarine, butter, and lard.
“I am the third generation in this business,” Gladys told me. “Both my grandmother and mother worked making sweets. We have been involved in this tradition for more than 51 years. I started in 1993 by helping my mom and that’s how I learned to make everything.” We can find some of the sweets that they make at the restaurant La Choza de Clarita (Clarita’s Hut), which is owned by Gladys’ sister and is one of the restaurants behind the bleachers in Carolina Park on Los Shyris Avenue in Quito.
Arnolia and Betty Salazar work at San Juan Bakery, behind the former military hospital. They belong to the Asociación Dulce Tradición (Sweet Tradition Association). At their stand they sell different types of cocada (candy traditionally made from grated coconut, molasses, and brown sugar) such as chocolate, pineapple, strawberry, whole cane sugar, and milk as well as chicharrón de coco.
To make chicharrón de coco, coconut is cut up into strips and then boiled with cinnamon, cloves, and sugar.
At another stand Miguel Susi, who has been making obleas (a round type of wafer) with his mother for more than 15 years, tells me that these wafers come from the Christian tradition of taking communion. Nevertheless, obleas are thicker and sweeter and are made of flour. To give them their shape, they are placed on round iron presses. They are commonly eaten with caramel spread or fruit syrups made from blackberries, coconut, pineapple, and guava, to name a few. Miguel works in Obleas Santa Fe located in many shopping centers such as C.C.I., El Condado, and El Recreo.
Balls of different kinds of squash, carrot cake, chocolate cake, orange cake with caramel, chocolate pudding, maqueño cake (a type of Ecuadorian banana), and coconut flan are some of the products sold at the stand belonging to the Asociación de Dulces Tradicionales (Association of Traditional Sweets). They also had lemon, coconut, and hot pepper jams. María Verónica told me that the hot pepper jam is used to dress meats because it is both sweet and spicy. I also sampled chicha de arroz (an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice and corn), which was quite refreshing. It is made with pineapple, babaco (a tropical fruit), and white fruits.
Javier Peñafiel, who works at the stand Dulces Naturales (Natural Sweets) showed me seven types of products: dulce de guayaba (a mix between a paste and a jam made of guava), peanut nougat, borrachitos (meaning “drunks”- sweetened shredded coconut covered in chocolate), caramel spread, candied figs, guava rolled up in caramel spread, and alfajores (caramel sandwich cookies). Javier told me his family has been working in this tradition for more than 50 years, starting with his grandparents and now carried on by him. His products can be found in San Martín, in southern Quito close to the Guajaló bridge.
Luzmila Guillén of Colaciones de la Cruz Verde (Green Cross Sugar Balls), along with her husband Luis Banda, make colaciones (sugar balls) filled with anise seed, peanuts, or walnuts. Children used to take these sugar balls to school to eat as a snack. I’m sure that if I ate a bag of them my blood sugar would skyrocket! Colaciones de la Cruz Verde is located between Avenida Bolívar and Avenida Chimborazo.
Mercedes Calvopiña, with her radiant energy, explained what jucho is to me. It is a beverage from Ambato and is popular in the Fruit and Flower Festival held in that city. Jucho has peaches, quince, and capulin, which is the main ingredient. To make it thick, apples are put in the blender and added to the drink. The color depends on the amount of capulins or strawberries used.
As I walked around the fair, a big pot covered in straw with tamales on top caught my attention. I got closer to get a better look and Graciela Campaña told me that she has been making tamales for 40 years. They are made with corn flour which is kneaded with butter and lard. Then a little salt and sugar are added. Red onions, green onions, and peppers are sautéed in butter, and later, meat is added: either pork rinds or chicken.
To begin to put the tamale together, first an achira leaf is placed on a flat surface and the mixture is put in the middle of the leaf. Then the sautéed mix is placed on top of that followed by a slice of hard-boiled egg and raisins. Then the leaf is folded in a rectangular shape around the tamale and tied with string. The tamale is steamed for an hour and a half. “To keep the tamale hot, the straw is placed below the tamales in the double steamer and that way more steam comes out,” Graciela says.
Graciela also explained how rosero is made. “It is made from orange blossom water with rose petals, orange leaves, lemon verbena, lemon grass, cinnamon, and pepper. Then boiled corn is added. Fruits like babaco, chamburo (tropical fruits), pineapple, strawberries, and naranjilla (a tropical fruit of the orange family) are added along with a bit of wine. It is all mixed together. This beverage used to be most commonly served at baptisms and first communions.
And as the saying goes, “Full stomach, happy heart.” I left the fair happier than usual.
Photographs by Sebastián Oquendo
Translation by: M. Bjorklund