Ceviche, corviche, viche, troliche; all traditional Manabí treats. In addition to their spectacular flavor, and their rhyming endings… What do they have in common? Well, they are all prepared with peanuts. And, something else… they have a purpose. At least for those who have created “Iche” with the fervent conviction that Manabí has the power to become the culinary bucket-list destination for the world.
Near San Vicente, on the way to the hamlet of San Isidro, there is a place where coastal Manabi meets the mountains. A centric, hybrid geography where the culinary roots of a truly culinary province are born. On the one hand, we find the influence of food in Esmeraldas, where coconuts are the main ingredient and, on the other, the marine delicacies of the Santa Elena peninsula. Considering this area was a port in the mid-19th century, we begin to understand the reasons for such an astounding fusion of flavors; one that has endured, for sure… but has also begun to disappear.
Hence, Iche’s ambitious mission: to rescue the ancestral roots of the incomparable culinary culture of Manabi. Despite having opened a few years ago, visiting is connecting with the past. A school, restaurant and laboratory at the same time, Iche was built by local builders with teak wood, conceiving its colorful architecture to represent a house of old – where the ground floor was used as a food reserve.
Upon arrival, the enchanting view of Bahía de Caráquez and an imposing ceibo welcome visitors. The larger-than-life tree fulfills the important function of storing the water in its trunk during the wet season and distributing it to the forest in times of drought. Iche seems to serve a similar purpose, a culinary receptacle that spreads the culinary knowledge it keeps in its vaults when inspiration falters.
Over the hills to cook
Valentina Álvarez is head chef, an encyclopedia of coastal delicacies… obsessed with hot peppers. The first thing, she explains, is to understand that ingredients we consider traditional should never be the only ones people use in their traditional dishes. “We also have ‘el monte’,” she says, enthusiastically, referring to everything that grows freely and naturally along the forested hillside. It grows abundantly… for everybody’s use, yet no one thinks to include these food items in their recipes. Moreover, their nutritional value is very high. An example is amaranth leaves which are called ‘bledos’. The chef defines them as ‘protein bombs’.
“We must have more variety on our plate,” says Valentina. Whilst using food from plants, culinary precepts can be broken, as we take directly from the land, from nature, and onto our plate. As a die-hard Manabí native, she takes her flavor with her wherever she goes. Yucca, fish, grains, peanuts… these are a must. But there is another secret: the Manabí stove, the most important piece of culinary tradition in the Manabí kitchen.
Consider the different nuances that make up traditional food in the culinary region par excellence: the acidity, saltiness, sweetness, creamy and crispy textures: how that all blend perfectly in our palates? The dirt-and-ceramic stove, a truly ancient artifact, offers over fifteen cooking techniques, without considering modern ones such as “slow cooking”, which is also practiced in Iche. The “soto”, for example, is one of the most popular. It consists of an implemet for cooking food over a live flame and allowing the ‘smoky’ flavor to enter fervently imbue each recipe.
Between clay pots, wooden spoons, grinders and crown mills (ideal for salprieta, a peanut condiment popular in Manabí), Valentina produces a spectacular lunch that deeply impacts our senses. The chicken “seco”. The chicken is boiled in its own broth, with bones and all, for at least five and a half hours. Then, confitted at 100°. A Creole yellow corn polenta with sherry was our main course. This was the rice for people in Manabí before rice was introduced. The dessert: smoked pineapple. The process to make it takes up to two hours and one must constantly check on it while cooking to keep the taste ideal. To garnish, basil collected fresh from the garden.
Two months before opening their restaurant, Iche was already operating as a culinary school; education based on the same purpose of preserving the region’s ancestral flavors, giving priority to locals and young chefs from the neighboring San Vicente, Jama, Sucre and Pedernales towns.
“The idea is to learn by doing,” says professor Francisco Rojas. He explains that the educational model is aimed at young students who seek to rescue culinary treasures that are being lost while securing a newfound recognition of the province as a culinary destination. Currently, twenty students make up the project’s first graduating class.
To graduate, each student must complete a final project, which meets all the bases of culinary training, including leadership, entrepreneurship and cultural expertise. In the local laboratory, students will also be able to create prototypes of food items that can eventually be sold. In addition, there’s a department specialised in beverages, where the students work on different fruit, alcoholic and carbonated drinks.
Iche is certainly, today, the most innovative, fresh and exciting culinary projects not only in Manabí, but, arguably, the entire country, demonstrating to those who visit that tradition goes beyond ingredients or recipies. Tradition is really anchored in the past but seeks to navigate into the future. So if you are in Bahia, you can’t miss this fascinating culinary stop. Iche will open your mind… and your palate, as to what Manabí food is really about.
San Vicente km. 4 vía a San Isidro. Manabí – Ecuador
(+593) 99 800 8986