Salt and macambo on the plate to season the raw meat of a mammal that has been absent from tables in Ecuador. This until now, with chef Mauricio Acuña’s innovation of including llama meat on the menu.
The wool of this distant relative of camels is used to make clothes, but its meat was hardly used in gastronomy.
Chef Acuña, who works at Spanish star restaurants Ferran Adrià and Martín Berasategui, is trying to change that.
In his restaurant El Salnés, in the north of Quito, the 50-year-old cook offers raw llama loin to enjoy the different flavor. It also serves a piece of the neck, which cooked has a flavor similar to that of pork.
The population of the only beast of burden in pre-Columbian America increased with the expansion of the Inca empire, explains to AFP Carlos Montalvo, an archaeologist at the Casa del Alabado Museum of Pre-Columbian Art in Quito.
Archaeological records reveal that the inhabitants of the Ecuadorian highlands ate mainly cuy (guinea pig) and deer, with no record of massive herds of llamas.
According to Montalvo, for not being “present in the culinary tradition”, the animals were exchanged for the sheep, cows and pigs brought by the Europeans.
restaurants for foreigners
El Salnés is part of a recent wave of restaurants in Quito that experiment with local ingredients with modern techniques.
Acuña is not the first chef in Ecuador to experiment with camelid meat. For a decade, the luxurious Hotel Casa Gangotena, in Quito’s historic center, has been serving steaks from the palette.
With the help of the UN’s Small Donations program, the cook arrived after many years in a community that produces llama meat in the southern province of Chimborazo, and from there he managed to take it to popular markets in Quito.
Susana Yánez has been heading her stall at the Las Cuadras market for more than 30 years, where she displays the half body of a skinned llama. Although the seller sees an increase in orders from restaurants and hotels, she admits that llama meat “doesn’t sell very well” even though it is priced similarly ($3.50 a pound, bone-in) to pork and lamb. .
At the Central Market in Quito, Ana Taco, one of the sellers of the meat, says they buy “mainly restaurants where foreigners come.”
In the Andean mountains of Peru and Bolivia, llama consumption is more frequent. However, Ecuadorian diners prefer pork, cuy or seafood from the coast.
In return, llamas, with their long necks and banana-shaped ears, are seen as mascots in the countryside, a tourist attraction or a sacred animal. For dinner, they are not so popular.
The chef believes it is due to “cultural erosion” and foreign practices. “It is a time to adopt an older agriculture with methods totally rooted in our culture”.
Gabriel Barriga, from the association of llama breeders Intiñan, estimates its population at 20,000 animals between the provinces of Imbabura, Pichincha, Tungurahua, Chimborazo, Bolívar and Azuay.
In the Andean mountain range, it is considered an “ecologically correct” animal: its padded paws do not damage the heath soils like cows, and its teeth cut the grass instead of uprooting like sheep, says Barriga.
Quechua indigenous families are responsible for the small herds. They also eat them, especially dried with salt in the “charqui” style, preserved for years in this way.
For more than 30 years Intiñan has financed the purchase of llamas in Chimborazo, in a project that has included vet visits and even animal-based cooking classes. However, due to the pandemic, the project was closed at the end of 2020.
Now, the bet of cooks like Acuña is to popularize it and take it directly to the house.
“Not just a restaurant”, says the chef, “but being in supermarkets; sooner or later it will be there”.