A lot of people write about Ecuador’s open-air markets and the vast array of fresh foods the year-round growing season produces. What I wanted to know before I moved here, though, was what the grocery stores were like—especially the differences, because that is what is most interesting.
There are several large grocery store chains in Ecuador. Supermaxi is similar to Safeway in the U.S. Tía and Gran Akí are more like small Walmarts, selling clothes, household items, and small appliances, in addition to food. The biggest difference is that there simply is not as great a variety in prepared foods.
There is, however, an almost limitless variety of fruit! Some fruit we ate, I must confess, we found repulsive…only to discover Ecuadorians don’t eat them, they juice them! Ecuadorians juice a lot. Grocery stores sell pouches of fresh fruit pulp in the produce section.
There is a smaller variety of vegetables to choose from but all the standards are here, save for the types of sweet potatoes and yams we are used to in North America. There are some South American varieties, however, as well as yucca, which are very good.
The first time I went shopping, I couldn’t find the milk. Most milk here is not refrigerated. It’s sold on the shelves in one-liter cartons or foil-lined cardboard packages for around $1.20.
Eggs, like milk, are also not refrigerated. It’s illegal in most countries to wash eggs before they are sold because a washed egg allows bacteria in more easily. Since the U.S. washes their eggs, they must be refrigerated. Depending upon the size, a dozen eggs go for $2.50. A flat of 36 eggs in the mercados (markets) goes for $3.50.
Yogurt is runny here, and you drink it. The flavors available are strawberry, peach, vanilla, mora (a kind of berry), and guanabana. A one-liter plastic baggie of yogurt runs about $1.30, while plastic containers that are easier to pour from cost $3 to $4.
The most common cheeses available are ricotta, mozzarella, and queso fresca—an unaged cheese. The aged cheeses most expats prefer are found next to the meats. So far, I have not found cottage cheese anywhere.
Pre-made salad dressings are usually vinaigrettes, although Ranch and French dressings are available. The same with jams and jellies: they have it, just not as great a variety. The jams available are strawberry, peach, mixed berry, orange marmalade, guava, and pineapple. Peach is the most expensive at $3 for a large jar. Jam can also be purchased in pouches for $1 per pouch.
Liquid dish soap is available, but most is sold as a solid in round plastic containers. It took us a while to get used to washing our dishes this way, but now I wouldn’t go back. It works great! You use a sponge, get it all sudsy, wash your dishes, and then rinse. It even works in cold water. So instead of washing in hot soapy water with a dishrag, you don’t have to have a sink full of water. You just use a sponge with the solid stuff and dishes get even cleaner. I love the dish soap here.
The only extracts I’ve found here are mint, coconut, strawberry, rose, almond, and vanilla, so I’ve learned to make my own favorites. That said, they more than make up for it in the large variety of spice mixes available. They may not have your preferred brand, but they do have many others that are equally delicious.
Your basic loaf of bread goes for $1.35, while specialty breads are $3.50. Then, there are the artisan breads sold in the bakery section—not to mention all the little bakeries scattered around that smell heavenly when you’re walking down the street. Hamburger buns in the bakeries go 10 for $1.
Again, the main difference is that there simply is not as great a variety of prepared foods as you experience in North America. You adjust as you learn what’s available and what’s not. The many spices and the near-limitless variety of delicious tropical fruits available year round more than make up the difference.
Fortunately, cans and packages have pictures even if the labels are in Spanish. Also, I have become very skilled at pointing and miming, and everyone is truly gracious and helpful.