In an era of trendy diets and “superfoods” from around the world, it is hard to believe that those foods could be inaccessible or even rejected by the people who live near or who grow them. Here is a summary of the complex story of why people in the tropical regions of Ecuador, where coconut is an ancestral food, have a prejudice against coconut, why they have less access to it and what you can do to help make a change.
Esmeraldas (literally “emeralds”) is known in the South American country of Ecuador as the “green province,” alluding to the lush vegetation of its humid tropical forests. Located on Ecuador’s northern Pacific Coast and bordering Colombia, Esmeraldas is a region populated mostly by people of African descent. For working class mestizos (mixed-race people) from major cities in the highlands, Esmeraldas has always been the number-one vacation destination. Esmeraldas’ beaches are a mere six- to seven-hour drive from Quito, the capital city. The coastal area highlights the regional cuisine of Esmeraldas, particularly seafood, which is also a major attraction for visiting tourists!
Ecuador has a rich and varied cuisine due to its diverse ecological geography. Whereas a high-altitude tuber like the potato makes the food of the highlands distinctive, coconut is the essential ingredient in Esmeraldan cuisine. Encocado (literally “coconut-ed”), the iconic Esmeraldan seafood or meat stew cooked in coconut sauce, sparks the imagination and ignites the taste buds of Ecuadorians. For black Esmeraldans, encocado is also a potent symbol of their identity—an essential part of their cultural heritage as an ethnic and regionally distinctive people.
ONCE UPON A TIME, EVERYTHING ENCOCADO
Fifty years ago, coconut palms grew on rural farms and in every backyard. In the old days, coconut was ubiquitous in Esmeraldans’ everyday life—but no longer.
Back then, Esmeraldans made everything encocado. Older men and women testify to having eaten coconut in almost every single meal of their day. A typical day could include hot chocolate made with freshly pressed coconut milk and local cocoa bean paste for breakfast, guanta1 or fish encocado for lunch and vegetable soup in coconut milk for dinner. Coconut meat pieces with grated panela (evaporated cane juice) made a snack, and masato—a smoothie made from ripe sweet plantain, coconut milk and cinnamon—was a refreshing, energizing drink at any time of day. Boiling hand-grated and pressed coconut milk with panela and spices made manjar de coco, a thick, sweet coconut treat. Grated coconut and panela are the only two ingredients in a still popular traditional dessert called cocadas. Homemade coconut oil was also commonly used as a skin and hair conditioner, and medicinally as a laxative.
Habits changed when new industrialized foods were introduced into the diet of Ecuadorians, particularly since the 1970s. However, the dramatic shift away from coconut in Esmeraldans’ diet is likely primarily due to the sharp rise in prices. In the early 2000s, one coconut cost as little as ten to twenty-five cents, but today they sell for as much as USD $1.50 to $2.50 in times of scarcity.
THE RISE OF THE COCONUT TRADE
How were coconuts made scarce in the local markets of one of the major coconut-producing areas of Ecuador? Over the past few decades, plagues have decimated coconut palms, although that’s not the whole reason for the price hike. In addition, Ecuador’s major cities—Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca—have become huge markets for coconuts from Esmeraldas for use in the growing food industry, and particularly as an ingredient in pastry products and granola. More recently, government programs have included granola (with grated coconut from Esmeraldas) as part of school breakfasts in public schools throughout the country. At one point, demand for coconuts in Ecuador’s urban-centered food industry increased to the point of sustained importation of coconut, especially from Peru, Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines and the United States. In the early 1990s, Ecuador began exporting coconut, sending most of its produce to Spain, the United States, Colombia and Argentina.
The high coconut traffic across local borders domestically explains how coconuts from Esmeraldas arrive on the plates of schoolchildren in Ecuador’s cold, dry highland towns and cities; or make their way to passersby in cool-weather Quito who buy coconut juice from the street carts of Esmeraldan vendors; or even show up in the granola and yogurt that health-conscious, middle-class, mestizo and white urban consumers have for breakfast. Internationally, Ecuador’s coconut trade now provides additives widely used in cosmetics and a grand assortment of health food supplements in the United States and Europe.
The boost in Ecuador’s coconut trade, and its corresponding toll on affordability and accessibility in Esmeraldas, explains why Esmeraldans today may substitute pasteurized commercial milk for the milk from expensive fresh grated coconuts when making their encocados. This is also why the traditional manjar de coco or pan de coco (coconut bread) is now made with plain cow’s milk instead of coconut. Increased trade also helps explain why entrepreneurs making artisanal coconut oil, like Don Julio Prado, were forced out of business after the rise in coconut prices and the introduction of commercial brands of fake, coconut-scented mineral oil. In short, the boom in local and global coconut demand accounts for why Esmeraldans of today eat coconut foods only a few times a week, and in some extreme cases, only once a year.
THE RISE OF BAD MEDICAL ADVICE
The coconut trade and the higher cost of coconuts are important factors, but they are not the whole story. Coconuts still grow in people’s backyards in Esmeraldas, and they are freely available to those who own and work in coconut palm plantations throughout the region. Could it be that Esmeraldans are purposefully not eating them? It turns out that medical doctors in Esmeraldas and Ecuador advise their patients against consuming coconuts, invoking long-discredited beliefs about the supposed adverse effects of saturated fat on heart health.2 With regard to dietary recommendations, Ecuadorian doctors get their updates from the American Heart Association and often point to saturated fat to explain the rising rates of obesity and hypertension affecting people in Ecuador.
Sadly, a public health-driven food labeling campaign based on the anti-saturated-fat dogma is underway in Ecuador. The “stop-light” food labels required on all packaged products are intended to warn consumers against eating foods high in fat, salt and sugar. Medical authorities particularly target traditional fats like butter, lard and coconut, and vilify Ecuadorian traditional dishes that contain these fats. As a result, a culture of guilt has taken hold when eating traditional foods in Ecuador. In Esmeraldas, it is common to hear doctors blame health problems on people’s preferences for traditional coconut dishes. Since coconut is a key ingredient in the local cuisine, these narratives also easily acquire racist undertones—that is, “black people prefer coconut-based foods; therefore, they are to blame for their own health problems.” It is hard to find the logic in this reasoning, however, given that coconut consumption is at an all-time low in Esmeraldas due in large part to the increase in prices and the medical campaigns launched against it.
RECLAIMING HEALTH AND CULTURE
People in Esmeraldas, more than anywhere else in Ecuador, have the right to know the truth about the value of their heritage foods, including coconut. With access to knowledge, they can reclaim their cultural heritage and reap its health benefits. In 2002, I co-founded the independent education initiative “Foods that Heal” (Comidas que curan) to document and promote the value of traditional foods through research and film.3 Using film and ethnography, Comidas que curan seeks to document and teach about food traditions and transformations in Ecuador and Latin America.
Raspando coco (“Scraping Coconuts”) is the latest documentary we released in 2018 based on the research findings described above, which we gathered and filmed between 2012 and 2017.4 (The film is in Spanish but available with English or Japanese subtitles.) Raspando coco, thirty-one minutes long, covers current scientific findings and revisits the history of local foods in Esmeraldas as told and remembered by the bearers of these food traditions. In 2018, I brought this award-winning film to the homes of each one of my interviewees in Esmeraldas. It was certainly empowering for them to see themselves positively represented in the film, and through their own memories to rediscover and embrace their culinary traditions with the added benefits to their health and well-being.
As in Esmeraldas, millions of people across the tropical coconut-growing regions of the world recognize coconuts as an integral part of their regional culinary traditions, everyday culture and history. Raspando coco tells a story that is relatable to people of color across the globe—people who have been unjustifiably scared away from their own food and medicinal heritage due to obsolete beliefs about saturated fat exported decades ago from the United States.
Recipe by Doña Matilde Angulo, Esmeraldas, Ecuador
10 ripe plantains
4 to 5 pieces of cinnamon bark
Coconut milk (to taste)
1. Wash and peel the plantains and cut them into pieces.
2. Bring water to a boil and add the cinnamon. Simmer until the water turns pink.
3. Add the plantain pieces and cook until soft. Let cool.
4. Remove the cinnamon pieces. Add the plantains with the cinnamon water to a mixer or blender. Add coconut milk to taste.
5. Mix well and serve cold.
FISH COCONUT STEW (ENCOCADO)
Recipe by Centro Martín Pescador, Quito, Ecuador
6 fish filets (such as tuna, tilapia, sea bass)
3 large, ripe coconuts
1 red onion, minced
1 green pepper, minced
½ tomato, cut in square pieces
1-3 garlic cloves, crushed
Achiote powder (annatto) or paprika
Salt, pepper and cumin to taste
Long coriander (chillangua), basil leaves, big leaf oregano to taste
1. Marinate the fish filets for 30 minutes with lime juice, salt and cumin. Clean the coconut, cut it and grate it. Extract the first juice of the coconut by mixing 3 cups of lukewarm water with the grated coconut, squeezing well with the hands through a strainer. Put aside in a bowl. Then extract the second juice of the coconut (less concentrated) using 5 cups of water to squeeze the juice out. (A mixer can also be used, and then a strainer to separate the juice from the fiber). Put aside in a different bowl.
2. Prepare the seasoning in a medium-sized pot, by adding the minced red onion, green pepper, crushed garlic and annatto with a little oil. Stir for 3 minutes and then add the tomato cut in square pieces. Add the second juice of the coconut to this seasoning.
3. Immediately add the fish and let cook for 5 minutes. Add the first juice of the coconut. Season with salt, pepper and cumin to taste. Turn filets and cook on low until fully cooked. Then add the secret of the Esmeraldan cuisine’s taste which are the coastal herbs, long cilantro (chillangua), basil (chirarán), and big leaf oregano. Serve with rice.
- “Lowland paca” (called guanta in Ecuador). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lowland_paca.
- Taubes, G. What if it’s all been a big fat lie? The New York Times Magazine. July 7, 2002. https://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/07/magazine/what-if-it-s-all-been-a-big-fat-lie.html.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2020🖨️ Print post