Chugchucara: A tradition worth savoring

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When I think of Latacunga’s signature dish, the chugchucara, I must confess that I fall prey to a syndrome that we’ve all experienced when we desire something intensely: my mind is transported. I travel to what “chugchucara street” (calle Quijano y Ordóñez), where a singular aroma fills the air. I imagine the smoke emanating from the cauldrons, a legacy that has taken over the city, and I think of the dish itself, like a still-life of culinary traditions. Every stall, every family, interprets it in their own way, and every recipe is only a part of something much larger, because Latacunga is all about its chugchucara.

There are over a dozen businesses in Latacunga that serve chugchucaras, and if you ask around, everyone has a different place to recommend. But a Latacungueño relative of mine encouraged me to look beyond the famous street and visit avenida Roosevelt and Pichincha, to an unassuming house with a small sign that reads “Antigua Tradición Latacungueña” (Old Latacunga Tradition).

There’s no menu here, certainly not an exception to the rule in this town. Who needs a menu when the only reason to visit a chugchucara dive would be to order just that. But the decision to take this street tradition to a restaurant environment seems evident. Inside, the restaurant is spacious, clean, almost new, and it seems to be treasured, already, by those who have discovered it. The experience lies, of course, in the warmth of the employees and the traditional flavor of the recipe itself. Carlos Jiménez, the owner, a man with grey hair and a broad smile, makes us feel like his favorite, oldest customers and welcomes us with a hug, even though this is our first visit.

At the table, the experience is divided into acts: first the mote (hominy) served with chuzo fritada (small pieces of sizzled pork meat) and the infallible ají hot sauce. Five minutes later, a second course arrives: a mixture of mini-recipes of different flavors and textures. Each seem to complement each other perfectly.

In Quichua, chugchucara means “trembling pork skin” – which is extracted from the pig’s chest. There is so much to eat, you don’t know where to begin. There are small, sweet empanadas with cheese, specifically cooked for this dish; potatoes fried in the same pan as the pork; fried sweet plantain (maduro); popcorn with toasted corn; the delicious pork fritada, pieces of meat cooked for hours in their own fat; and finally, the performance’s pièce de résistance: cuero reventado (fried rind from the pork’s stomach). As you tuck in, you realize you don’t need a fork or knife. You just use your hands, as you did as a child. Our host passes by the tables, asking if all is well. His face lights up when we respond with telling smiles.

The restaurant, and this recipe, in particular, were inherited from his parents. “My mom had her business years ago,” he says, “and my wife encouraged me to open this place to keep the tradition alive. For example, chugchucaras used to only be served on Fridays, which is why we only open from Friday to Sunday. And the preparation is from back then, as well. I think that’s why everyone leaves the restaurant so happy.” When asked about the secret to his success, he confesses: “I always ask my clients if they’re enjoying their food, and when they say they loved it, it motivates me to keep going”. An old Latacunga tradition that not only sets him apart, but exemplifies his contribution to what makes his city special.

We leave with our hearts and bellies content, our fingers greasy despite having gone through reams of napkins. Carlos, just as he welcomed us, says goodbye with the same affection. Having travelled across Ecuador, I realize food is not simply a daily delight, a moment of passing inspiration or something to analyze afterwards. It is identity. In countries like ours, where every region has a unique dish or three, it is a gift, a map to a treasure passed down from generation to generation that carries with it the essence of tradition, memory and culinary prowess.

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