1 Introduction

Country of origin (COO) gastronomy, through its codification and promotion can be a driver of haute cuisine, and through it, of a country’s cuisine [1]. This codification is present in formally established cuisines, notably the French [2, 3]; and partial or absent in less well-defined cuisines. The process of codification has also been shown to be part of the deliberate construction of a national identity [4] and a tool of gastro-diplomacy to help promote the brand of a country internationally [5].

Ecuadorian cuisine lacks consensus in such codification, although there are important works that describe dishes, customs and traditions [6, 7], and efforts are being made in that direction [8, 9]. Ecuador is marketed as the “Country of the four worlds” [10], namely Galapagos islands, Pacific coast, Andean highlands and Amazon. Most of the population in the country is concentrated in the Coastal and Highlands regions. Amazon has little more than 5% of the population and Galapagos less than 0,2%. A fundamental aspect of the country's promotion strategy revolves around its culinary heritage, which has garnered international recognition. [11], and is being actively promoted to local and international audiences both at the central and provincial government levels [12, 13]. There is little published research about Ecuadorian cuisine and gastronomy, mainly in the Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification (ANZSRC) category 35: Commerce, Administration, Tourism and Services, with emphasis in tourist satisfaction in coastal locations [14, 15], and to a lesser extent in categories related to culture [16, 17], or traditional products and preparations [18, 19].Therefore there is a need to strengthen the groundwork on which to build. Part of this groundwork must come from documentation analysis and scholarship [20, 21], and part of it has to come from the people, who are the heirs, actors, innovators, and main consumers of Ecuadorian cuisine.

The lack of an authoritative representation of Ecuadorian cuisine, its unity and its diversity weakens its position as a COO cuisine and the outlook of its promotion, both local and international. In this work we set to address this problem by studying the cultural consensus about Ecuadorian cuisine in the shape of its most popular dishes to determine the most representative Ecuadorian dishes, and to define if there is a different perception between different demographic groups: age, gender, education level, and location (Coast/ Highlands). The aims of this work are: (1) to provide a representation of the Ecuadorian cuisine obtained from urban Ecuadorians using the free listing technique; (2) to establish differences in the perception of Ecuadorian gastronomy in different demographics, under the assumption that coast and highlands cuisines are different, because they arise from different influences and ingredient availability; (3) to establish a list of the dishes with highest cultural consensus; and (4) to compare the most important dishes with those present in the official gastronomic promotion campaigns.

2 Theoretical background

Cuisine and gastronomy are intertwined but are not interchangeable. Cuisine relates to the sourcing and preparation of food. According to Kocevski and Risteski, cuisine refers to the common elements that range from the procurement of ingredients, the condiments and flavorings, the cooking methods to the ways of serving and consumption [22]. Gastronomy is a wider field coined from “the laws of the stomach” by Brillat-Savarin and defined in the “Physiology of Taste” as “…a scientific definition of all that relates to man as a feeding animal.” [23] in the early nineteenth century, although there was a Greek book -which has not survived- that may have been named “Gastronomia” in the fourth century BC [24] which was a food-and-wine guide of the Mediterranean. Gastronomy encompasses cuisine but is also “an approach to studying food” [25], includes the cultural and scientific aspects of food, where science looks for its own field, be it molecular gastronomy [26], gastrology [27], or culinology [28]. Gastronomy is an ever-evolving field that requires updated definitions and scope [29], probably too ample for a single definition [30], but that relates to skill and knowledge concerning food and drink [24]. Gastronomy includes cuisine in its field.

Food customs are central to identity: peoples and nationalities are classified, named and nicknamed by their dietary habits [31]. Distinctions are made not only among ethnic groups but also among social classes and as a marker of status, as expressed by Bourdieu’s theory of distinction [32] and Jurafsky et al. [33]. Mandatory foods and temporary or permanent food taboos are spread throughout history and human groups, tied to ethnic or national identities, with the most known examples being kashrut [34] and halal [35], as codified alimentary patterns with both mandatory foods and prohibitions. The identity and its perceived authenticity are so important, that they have lead to distortion and invention to legitimize culinary traditions [36]. These legitimized traditions are promoted and commercialized through heritagization [37], the process of creating -rather than recognizing- value from traditional practices. Heritagization has found an ally in media, including social media [38] that amplifies the heritage, but often falls into folklorization [39]. The UNESCO recognition of local gastronomies as heritage is sought after, as in the case of Peruvian ceviche [40], and can be a powerful impulse for cuisine and culture [41], as is the case with French Mediterranean diet, Mexican cuisine, or Washoku, the traditional dietary culture of the Japanese [42]. The system is not without critique, such as the banalization of nationalism and the simultaneous divisive and unifying role that UNESCO plays [43].

Gastronomy is a contributor to tourism, gaining importance in time: gastronomic tourism -a mode of cultural tourism- exists explicitly since the turn of the century [44] and has become a thriving field in the last twenty years [45]. Gastronomic tourism is a way to attract visitors to touristic locations, and its success on location depends on well-trained, knowledgeable personnel, conveying tradition, product quality and presence, and ambience [46]. The promotion of local gastronomy is equally important and is a matter of national policy [1].

Ecuadorian cuisine is a melting pot of several traditions, ingredients and peoples, from the indigenous inhabitants and their cultures since around 10,000 BC [47] to colonizers and immigrants, notably the Inca and the Spanish, who brought ingredients, techniques and dishes that helped shape Ecuadorian cuisine as we know it today. The Coast, Andean highlands and Amazon present different climates, influences, ingredients and traditions, that greatly influence their respective cuisines [9]. There is also a historic rivalry between the highlands and the coast, represented by their main cities Quito and Guayaquil, that hinder a truly national union [48]. This division extends to the local cuisine, mostly as a friendly rivalry. The gastronomic promotion of the country relies on dishes promoted at the province level as well as pan-Ecuadorian products and dishes such as cacao, coffee, banana and ceviche [8, 18]. Heritagization is under way, for example in the declaration of Portoviejo, capital city of the Manabí province as a UNESCO Creative City in gastronomy [11], which has been turned into a cultural and economic driver to an extent [49]. Also, the traditional cuisine of the Manabí province has been recognized as Cultural Intangible Heritage within Ecuador [50], drawing interest and internal tourism.

3 Methods

The study area for this work consists of the main coastal and highland cities of Ecuador, representing a total population of more than nine million people, divided in roughly equal proportions between the coast and the highlands. The study area is shown in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Study area, showing the location of Ecuador in South America and the "four worlds". The study was carried out in the Coast (blue) and the Andean highlands (orange). Adapted from [18]

Free listing is a semiquantitative anthropological research technique that enables researchers to explore the shared perspectives of a group by asking members to list all elements of a domain [51, 52].Coupled with statistical analysis has been successfully used as a research tool in diverse fields, including food studies and gastronomy research [53, 54]. It consists of asking respondents to mention all the elements they know about a topic or domain. The most frequently mentioned items, together with the mention order contribute to the construction of a cultural consensus for the studied subject [53]. The technique is well-suited for this work because it allows for the determination of a cultural consensus, adequate for a general view of the studied field that in time will need to be refined by more detailed studies.

In this study respondents were asked to fill in their demographics: gender, age group, whether they lived in the highlands or the coast, and their education level. They then were asked to freely mention dishes from Ecuadorian cuisine in whichever order they thought of them. The response was recorded when respondents stopped giving answers or made long pauses. Respondents were interviewed in twelve cities both on the coast and the highlands. In the coast, interviews were performed in Guayaquil, Santo Domingo, Portoviejo, Machala, Manta, and Esmeraldas. In the highlands interviews were performed in Quito, Cuenca, Ambato, Loja, Riobamba, and Ibarra. Cities were chosen because of concentrating the majority of the population, thus allowing for easier access to respondents, which were contacted and interviewed in public places by interviewers dressed in a chef’s jacket.

A total sample size of n = 294 was used, divided evenly between Coast and Highlands (n = 147 each), this sample size was attained after excluding anomalous responses that mostly mentioned non-Ecuadorian preparations such as tacos, burgers, pizza, etc. Even though this information is interesting, it lies beside the focus of the present study. Traditionally, this sample size would have an error of 5.72% with a 95% confidence interval [55]. Free listing, though, relies on smaller sample sizes, often no larger than 20 or 30 respondents because data saturation -when adding respondents does not provide new data- is considered to be reached around that sample size [56, 57]. The inclusion criteria of randomly sampled respondents were being 18 years of age or older and willingness and consent to participate in the study with no monetary or other compensation. The interviews were done face to face, with the interviewers transcribing the responses down in a digital form. No information was collected from the respondents besides the basic demographics and the foods listing.

The data was cleaned up. Responses were cleaned up for typing errors. Initial articles were deleted from responses (La sopa was changed to Sopa). Synonyms were merged: for example, guatita, mondongo and librillo (tripe) were merged under guatita. Spelling was standardized, especially in the case of dishes with Quichua names. For example, Tripa mishki was used for all responses for the grilled beef small intestine preparation, which were spelled tripa miski, tripa misqui and tripa mishqui on the responses. Also, categories were merged; with all ceviches, empanadas, viches, cazuelas, etc. represented as single preparations regardless of the dough composition or source of protein. Due to the importance of soups (sopas), broths (caldos) and stews (secos) in Ecuadorian gastronomy [58, 59], they weren’t merged, but kept as independent elements, as they are considered distinct dishes according to the origin of the meat, mainly hen and chicken. Cleanup work of the data was done in MS-Excel.

List length among demographic groups was evaluated through ANOVA and Student’s t-test for significant differences. The preparations were ranked through B’ score [60] in R Studio using FLARES (Free List Analysis under R Environment using Shiny) [61] and the AnthroTools package [62]. B’ Score was preferred over other salience measures, such as Smith's S and Sutrop for several reasons. It considers the number of items listed by each participant and the listing frequency for each item, making it a more sensitive measure than Smith's S, which only considers the frequency of occurrence of each item. B' Score uses a logarithmic transformation to adjust for the distribution of data. This makes it more robust to outliers than Sutrop, which is based on a simple rank-ordering of items. B' Score is standardized, which means that it can be compared across different studies and populations. This is not the case for Sutrop, which is a relative measure that is specific to the study population [60]. B' Score has been validated in a variety of studies, including cultural salience [53] and ethnobotany [63]. Additionally, Spearman’s rank correlation was calculated to assess the relationship between demographics using the 50 highest-ranked preparations for each demographic. The correlation strength is described according to Evans [64] as follows: 0.00-0.19 “very weak”, 0.20-0.39 “weak”, 0.40-0.59 “moderate”, 0.60-0.79 “strong”, 0.80–1.0 “very strong”.

4 Results and discussion

The 294 respondents provided 235 distinct items, with a total of 2805 cited items. The average number of preparations mentioned overall is 9.61 ± 4.08 with a minimum list length of two items, and a maximum list length of twenty items.

There are no significant differences in list length among groups, except for age (p = 0.0035), in which respondents between 18 and 27 years of age provide significantly shorter lists than respondents between 38 and 47 years of age. List length results are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1 Demographics and list length of responders

All groups present homogeneous intra-group variance (p > 0.05), shown in Table 2. These p-values validate the null hypothesis: the dispersion is homogeneous within all groups.

Table 2 Intra-group homogeneity

This validation allows for a permutational analysis of variance (perMANOVA) that shows groups are significantly different among them \* MERGEFORMAT Table 3.

Table 3 perMANOVA analysis of group variance

p-values do not explain the nature of the differences. The correlation coefficient (R2) is small, indicating that a small part of the variance is explained by these differences. The intersections and differences among respondents are shown as Jaccard diagrams in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Respondent proximity plots (Jaccard) by demographic. A: location (Coast-Highlands). B: age. C: Gender. D: Education level. The least intersection occurs in A, between Coast and Highlands preparations

25 preparations were selected as the most salient. A Scree plot of the data ( \* MERGEFORMAT Fig. 3) places the “elbow” in the chart after preparation number 25 (Mote pillo). Those items to the left of the “elbow” were selected as the most relevant [65].

Fig. 3
figure 3

Scree plot and B’ Score for Ecuadorian preparations

The main preparations of Ecuadorian cuisine i.e., those to the left of the elbow in the Scree plot in Fig. 3 are listed in Table 4 with a brief description Fig. 4 presents the first four dishes in the ranking.

Table 4 Main preparations of Ecuadorian gastronomy, in decreasing order of B’ score
Fig. 4
figure 4

Source: Ministerio de Turismo Ecuador. License CC BY-SA 2.0. D: Fritada. Source: Medios Públicos de Comunicación del Ecuador. License: CC BY-SA 2.0

The first four preparations in the Ecuadorian cuisine cultural consensus ranking. A: Encebollado. B: Ceviche in the style of Portoviejo. C: Hornado in the style of Imbabura.

4.1 Status as traditional food

The status of the listed dishes as traditional foods combines ancestral, pre-Hispanic and pre-Inca preparations with creolized dishes.

Encebollado is considered a derivation of ceviche from the second half of the twentieth century in Guayaquil, which in turn is a dish that mingles local and European ingredients into a local version of a dish spread through all the Pacific coast of Latin America [18]. Hornado and fritada are pork —brought by the Spaniards— dishes similar to others present in Latin America and southern U.S.A [66]. Llapingachos are creolized potato patties of pre-Hispanic origin [6] that are served on their own or topped with sausage, cheese or eggs. Cuy (Cavia porcellus L.) is a species that has been bred for its meat for at least 5000 years. It does not exist in the wild [67], and is spread through the Andes. Guatita is tripe, consumed worldwide as a cheap protein source [66]. The Ecuadorian version is often stewed in a peanut sauce [68].

Bolón is a boiled plantain ball, often served with cheese, fried pork or other protein-rich foods, eaten both on its own or as a side dish for meat or liver stews, very appreciated as street food [69]. Tigrillo is a similar dish, not served as a ball. Encocado is from the northern Esmeraldas province where African influence is strong. Viche is a dish that straddles the line between a soup and a stew, in a way similar to other seafood soups such as boullabaise [66] from the Manabí province with claims to an ancestral origin [70], with European ingredients. Corviche is a popular fried street food with an uncertain history. Bollo, tonga and humita are preparations wrapped in plant leaves: Bollo and Tonga in plantain leaves, and humita in corn leaves, in a similar fashion to several other wrapped foods throughout Latin America and elsewhere. Humita is omnipresent in the Andean region [66], while bollo and tonga are coastal Ecuadorian dishes [71]. Locro is a pre-Inca Andean potato soup popular from Chile in the south to Colombia in the north [72]. Yaguarlocro is a locro with lamb offal and blood among its ingredients [73].

Seco is a stew present in Peru and Ecuador, named after the protein: seco de gallina and seco de pollo are present in the list. Broths (caldos) are omnipresent. Empanadas are of Central Asian origin, spread through all former Spanish colonies [66]. It is frequent to replace non-native wheat with other ingredients such as maize and plantain as the base for the dough.

Cazuela derives its name from the cooking dish and is of European origin. In Ecuador it was adapted to a plantain, peanut, and seafood casserole, Arroz marinero is the local version of rice and seafood and one of the most popular dishes in coastal restaurants [74]. Papas con cuero is a boiled potato with pig’s skin soup, mote pillo is a scrambled eggs, milk and maize dish, popular in the Azuay province, part of a culinary trilogy together with mote sucio and mote pata, other traditional maize dishes [8].

All these preparations meet the four requirements of traditional food. They all have a place, sufficient time, their own know-how and also cultural meaning [75].

4.2 Demographics

The correlation among the demographic groups is generally high, and always positive (Table 5).

Table 5 Spearman's rank correlation among demographics

All correlations are highly significant (p < 0.01) and all but one of the tested relations are moderate or higher, which can be interpreted as a good level of consensus about Ecuadorian cuisine among the different demographics. The lowest —and only weak correlation— is 0.286 between the highlands and the coastal rankings, even though the dish consensus is over 50%. The difference between these two demographics is discussed below.

4.3 Coast and highlands

A comparison of overall rankings with the coast-only and highlands-only ranking of the listed preparations (Table 6) comprises fifteen dishes as consensus dishes, while seven dishes are Coast only—that is, in the top twenty-five for coastal respondents but not in the top twenty-five for highlands respondents, while three preparations show the inverse behavior.

Table 6 Comparison between coast and highland consensus of top dishes

The seven coast-only preparations are: viche, corviche, bollo, seco de gallina, cazuela, tonga, and arroz marinero. The common ingredients are peanut and plantain, both used in viche, corviche, bollo, cazuela and tonga; and fish and seafood, used in viche, corviche, cazuela and arroz marinero. Seco de gallina has no distinctive local ingredients.

The three highlands-only preparations are: yaguarlocro, papas con cuero, and mote pillo. Both yaguarlocro and papas con cuero use offal, which, with the exception of tripe, features more prominently in highlands cuisine than in coastal cuisine.

Of the fifteen consensus preparations, six are from the coastal tradition (encebollado, ceviche, bolón, encocado, tigrillo, and seco de pollo); six are from the highland’s tradition (hornado, fritada, llapingacho, cuy, locro, and humita); and guatita, caldo de gallina and empanadas are present in both and belong to none: they are international dishes.

Gender differences are much more limited. Only two preparations on the list are in significantly different positions. Mote pillo, number twenty-five in the general list, comes in place nineteen for males and twenty-eight for females. Arroz marinero, number twenty-three in the general list, is listed in place twenty-three for males and twenty-six for females. All the other preparations are present in both rankings.

The consensus is high among age groups, with the following exceptions: the 18–27 age group includes neither arroz marinero nor papas con cuero; the 28–37 age group is completely within consensus, the 38–47 age group excludes yaguarlocro, caldo de gallina and tonga, and the 48 + group excludes llapingacho, corviche, bollo, cazuela and papas con cuero.

The differences among education levels are also few. Respondents with graduate studies show a somewhat different pattern in which dishes from Loja feature prominently. Loja is a city with a long academia tradition and important universities [76], and that seems to have skewed the responses in this group with traditional preparations from the Loja province: Cecina, sun-dried meat [5]; repe, unripe banana soup [6]; sango, maize porridge [15]; sopa de arvejas con guineo, unripe banana and pea soup [20], and tamal, dry yellow maize dough and stew wrapped in plantain or arrowroot leaves [22].

Education correlates with cultural capital [77], and we had expected to see more pronounced differences among educational levels, according to Bourdieu's theory of social distinction [32], where food is considered a significant cultural marker that reflects an individual's social position This is not reflected in the data obtained, which is further confounded by the geographical skew among respondents with graduate studies.

No beverages are included in the main list. Colada morada, a purple maize drink served during the feasts of the dead in November is the highest placed drink in place 36. Chicha, a traditional drink and cooking ingredient is listed in place 64. Canelazo, an Ecuadorian toddy is in place 77. Horchata, a medicinal herbal drink [78] is present in place 91. Rosero, a maize and fruit drink in place 94, and coffee appears in place 118. In other studies such as [54], culturally important beverages do appear on the main list.

4.4 Correspondence with Ecuadorian cuisine promotion

Part of the promotion of the country as a tourist destination is through its cuisine. There is an initiative to promote Ecuadorian cuisine that includes several products: books [9], maps [8] and guides [79]. The Gastronomic map of Ecuador showcases provincial dishes as a tourist attraction [8]. Its methodology [80] does not mention consulting the people, but rather suggests a top-down approach that —in the experience of the authors— left some gastronomic entrepreneurs frustrated. Apparently non-representative dishes are: encanutado (not mentioned), seco de chivo [37], barbecue roast [69], chigüil [60], cascaritas [68], chugchucaras [33], and repe [29], which almost made it to the main list. The rankings are shown in Table 7.

Table 7 Gastronomic map of Ecuador provincial dishes and B’ score ranking

Several of the preparations are within the most salient in Ecuadorian cuisine, but others seem to be outside the consensus: chigüiles and barbecue roast are the least consensual in the coast and highland regions, and better alternatives are present for Santa Elena as previously mentioned. Repe as the chosen representative for Loja seems appropriate because, although not on the list, it is an appreciated local dish. Chugchucaras is a composite dish of several traditional preparations [81], and also seems appropriate despite not being in the list.

4.5 Practical implications

The information presented here confirms the importance of dishes already used in the culinary promotion of Ecuador. Hornado and encebollado, for example, which have their own “world championships” also rely on local differences for their promotion, such as the different hornados that represent the provinces of Carchi and Chimborazo [8], or ceviches from Manabí, with avocado and peanut sauce, different from the very popular aphrodisiac ceviches, especially those from Esmeraldas [82]. This high degree of consensus on the most salient preparations and the wealth of local varieties provides solid material for the creation and strengthening of internal gastronomic tourism that can rely on the common ground of Ecuadorian cuisine as well as its uniqueness, through gastronomic routes, like the “Latitud Iche” route in the north of the Manabí province, inaugurated in late 2022 [83], empowered food festivals [49, 84], and the strategic positioning of products and preparations, to name a few, as a structure open to use and development by tourism entities, always attuned to what Ecuadorians consider their own cuisine.

When considering international promotion, there is a need to articulate government and private actors, academia and the civil society [5]. The information presented herein can serve as a priority list to focus the country’s offerings in promotion, brand building, and the construction of a culinary identity. Protected geographic indications (PGI) in Ecuador currently include only non-elaborated products: cacao Arriba, Galapagos coffee, Transkutukú peanuts and Palora dragon fruit [85]. The information presented in this work can increase the value of Ecuadorian cuisine, through the advancement of PGI and heritage recognition for traditional dishes, following what has been done in other countries [86, 87]. This of course requires coordinated work of all the actors mentioned.

5 Conclusions

A representation of Ecuadorian cuisine with twenty-five high consensus preparations was obtained, with little variation between genders and among age groups and education levels. Despite the regional differences, fifteen preparations achieved cultural consensus on both the coast and the highlands, despite their mixed origin. Also, when comparing the top-25 rankings, seven coast-only and three highlands-only preparations are present in the consensus list. There is weak correlation —the lowest correlation in all the demographics measured— between Coastal and Highlands representations of Ecuadorian cuisine.

A list of representative Ecuadorian dishes was obtained, led by encebollado, ceviche, hornado, fritada, and llapingacho. The list combines traditional coastal and highlands, and also introduced preparations, such as empanadas, and shows the most relevant Ecuadorian dishes, from the people of Ecuador point of view. We propose that codification of Ecuadorian cuisine should prioritize the dishes in the list.

When compared with official promotional campaigns, good agreement was found, with choices that can be improved if popular opinion is considered.

Practical implications are mentioned for both domestic and international promotion of Ecuadorian cuisine, and its brand construction and protection.

6 Contribution to the field

This work provides a foundation for a systematic codification of Ecuadorian cuisine and its traditions, showing its most salient dishes, as well as actionable information for its promotion and valorization. It is our hope that culinary and gastronomic research can extend this study to strengthen and preserve the Ecuadorian culinary identity in an age of gastronomic deculturation and global influences. Also, there is a dearth of academic publications on Ecuadorian cuisine, which this work contributes to mitigate.

7 Limitations

The present study gives a general view. Further province by province and canton by canton work would refine this view and include the whole country. This work did not include the Amazon and Galapagos regions because of the small percentage of the population living there and logistic reasons.