The river and its vapors jumped off the boats and into the buckets along the riverbank. This is the evolutionary story of Guayaquil’s dish par excellence.
The encebollado (something like ‘onion marinade’) was born from Guayaquil’s riverside culture. Historian Jenny Estrada attributes responsibility for this flagship dish to the gigantic River Guayas running through the city. The steamy riverside kitchens mixed the fish brought in from the sea with yuca (or cassava) torn from the land — experimentation that resulted in a dish that is not prepared at home, but has become a staple of the streets.
No one can resist it, no matter the economic or social status of the eater! Guayaquileños seek it out 24 hours a day and everyone holds his or her huequito (hole-in-the-wall) dear, because every street corner in Guayaquil has its secrets, and every encebollado is unique.
Today, encebollados are easy to track down in Guayaquil. The dish has certainly colonized the city from its original riverside eateries, where buckets full of it served energy and stamina in-a-bowl for those who worked all day at the docks and needed something “hearty” to make it by.
Jenny Estada also explains that a possible precursor was the common potato salad made in many-a-Guayaquil family home, with shredded chicken breast, onions, chopped tomatoes, and grated hard-boiled eggs. The uniqueness here was adding chicken broth on top to make the dish less dry. Another variation was picante: a mashed-yuca-salad with fish and an onion sauce. Whatever the origin, some 35 years ago, encebollado took over city streets.
Today, you take encebollado to work, you seek it after a night out, you eat it very early in the morning, to start your day. You can serve it with bread, rice or plantain chips, although, as Jenny Estrada would say, these are not necessary: encebollado is a meal in itself. No one agrees on the exact recipe, but albacore tuna, onions, and cilantro are a must. You can also ask for mixed varieties of fish and shrimp, or fish, shrimp, and squid.
He who seeketh encebollado in the river-port-turned-sea-port of Guayaquil should know that its boats and river life are an integral part of the city’s everyday life. And the encebollado is a gift in Guayaquil’s collective memory, a dish that brands its identity on anyone who eats it from the first to the last taste.