Ecuador food is at it’s best for me when it’s fresh-picked and organic.
In our own garden we have bright green chard, huge cabbages, naranjillas, lemons and oranges. There’s nothing better than a crisp garden salad dressed with a fresh-squeezed lemon and a bit of cilantro or basil sprinkled on top.
Every Sunday we like to head for the produce market to pick up what we lack in our garden. Little did I know that Gary and I would have a small cultural clash with some of the Cotacachi indigenous shop-keepers there. All because of our penchant for fresh greens.
During our first year in Ecuador, we often bought fat globes of ruby red beets in the produce market. Each time we did, the vendor would quickly lop off the greens with a knife or machete and present us with the butchered remains. For a while we meekly took our scalped beets and went home.
Then one Sunday when the beet greens were looking especially vibrant, Gary asked the indigenous woman not to cut off the tops. She stopped in mid-machete swing and looked at Gary quizzically.
“Por que no?” she queried with a fixed smile and a wary look.
Gary explained that we wanted to eat the greens, not realizing he was creating serious cultural upset right there in the vegetable section. He mimed taking greens and putting them into his mouth, smacking loudly and making a satisfied mmmmm sound. This only made the situation worse.
As he explained I watched the woman’s expression morph from a smile to puzzlement and disbelief, then into understanding and finally disgust. There was an electric charge in the air around her.
Being Ecuadorian, her acculturation required that she keep her thoughts and feelings masked behind an expression of kindly acceptance, but I could read her feelings in the micro-movements in the facial muscles.
I watched as she slightly clenched her jaw. She inhaled and held her breath. I saw the little line of concern that furrowed her brow as she tried to figure out what we meant.
She whispered something to a fellow vendor, who stopped what he was doing to stare at us. Then he uttered one short statement, “Comida para el chancho,” which translates literally as, “food for the pig.”
Gary tried to explain to the pair how delicious and nutritious the greens are. He described how we steam or saute them lightly with chopped onions, sliced red peppers, a little salt and pepper. He told them that we love the greens topped with pumpkin or sunflower seeds that have been sauteéd in soy sauce.
They weren’t listening. Their eyes were glazed.
We slunk away and didn’t buy greens for a while.
Next time we bought beets from the woman she automatically raised her arm to whack off the tops. I held up my hand and said, “No!” I tried to meet her gaze with calm indifference to indicate that it was okay with me if she thought we ate pig food but that I was going to carry right on eating them.
There was probably more self-righteousness and defiance in my stance than is socially acceptable. But at least she stopped the massacre and handed me the beets with greens intact.
We do our best not to upset the cultural apple-cart in Ecuador, or in this case, the cultural beet pile, but sometimes the beet greens are so delicious-looking that we can’t wait to get home and steam up a bowl. And I admit that maybe we are a little bit piggy about it.
We console ourselves by telling each other that we are being as discrete as possible. After all, we don’t gobble the greens down whole right there in the market.
As time has passed, our market lady has loosened up and so have we. Now she smiles when she hands us our beets with the greens un-severed.
We exchange secret little ironic smiles. I appreciate her outward acceptance of our strange gringo ways. She doesn’t look askance, refuse our request or act any way but perfectly normal.
I tease her and ask her if she’s eaten any yet. I sometimes exaggerate my excitement at the quality of her beets and smack my lips in anticipation of another feast of green pig food.
If you happen to bring up the subject of beet greens with an Ecuadorian or serve them at a meal where Ecuadorians are present, remember to exercise cultural discernment. You don’t want your new southern neighbors to be overcome with a bout of nausea. Approach the subject gingerly.
Mmm . . . fresh ginger and beet greens. Sounds scrumptious!
In case you, too, are a Cotacachi expat with a closet craving for beet greens, here’s one of my favorite beet green recipes. Just don’t tell any Ecuadorians.