According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, one of Ecuador’s top exports is bananas. In fact, Ecuador was the world’s largest exporter of bananas in 2019. When reflecting on Ecuadorian cuisine and its significance to me, I cannot help but fixate on one ingredient that graces a multitude of dishes: the plantain. Plantains are a type of banana characterized by their starchiness and firm texture. From maduros to patacones to bolones to tigrillos to chifles, plantains can be prepared in so many different, scrumptious ways. Ecuador is the South American country where my family is from, meaning that I have been there multiple times in my life and enjoyed the food of my culture alongside close relatives. Throughout the course of several years, my appreciation for plantains has drastically increased because of the creativity which Ecuadorians implement when crafting plantain-based delicacies. The particular delicacies which I most enjoy when visiting Ecuador are the bolón and tigrillo mixto from Café de Tere in Guayaquil, Ecuador. They are mouth-watering dishes that I look forward to eating with my loved ones every single time I travel to Ecuador. I cannot leave the country without doing so; it’s that simple.
Eating at Café de Tere is always a planned event that my grandmother and uncle help facilitate. We typically select a specific day to eat there, and on that day they drive me to this esteemed restaurant where we never fail to exchange laughs and smiles while recounting old, humorous memories over a spectacular breakfast. Upon arriving and parking, we head over to the ordering area outside and wait in line until our turn arrives. Café de Tere is such a popular culinary destination in Guayaquil that long lines are seldom unexpected. Routinely, I analyze the horizontal and bright yellow menu above my head, though I know exactly what my order will be once the cashier calls us forward: a bolón and a tigrillo mixto paired with orange juice. After placing our order, we make our way to an empty table outside and excitedly anticipate the arrival of our food.
Perhaps one of the reasons why I deeply savor plantains in the form of bolones and tigrillos has nothing to do with the dishes themselves, but the memories associated with eating them at Café de Tere with my grandmother and uncle. The restaurant’s outdoor setting allows us to relish in the blissful heat and breeze of Guayaquil. Before our food and drinks are even placed on our table, we have the opportunity to catch up with one another. We observe how busy the restaurant is and discuss how Café de Tere grew from a small business to an Ecuadorian empire; it’s inspiring to reflect on how well-prepared, culturally authentic food knows no limits when it comes to success. Café de Tere’s beautifully chaotic environment allows one to enjoy their food even more, given the restaurant’s bustling and community-based nature. Café de Tere’s sunshine yellow aura increases one’s excitement to eat plantains—the menu’s fundamental ingredient.
Eventually, our tray of food is brought to the table and my eyes meet the bolón and tigrillo mixto I ordered. Bolones are made by boiling plantains until they are tender and then mashing them to form balls or dumplings, which are then fried for a crispy exterior. White crumbly cheese is typically added to the plantain mash, which makes for velvety bolones once they are finished cooking. When I take the first bite, I experience the crunchiness of the outside and then immediately taste the simultaneously sweet and savory flavor of plantains. The smoothness of the mash merges wonderfully with the gooey consistency of the cheese, almost melting in my mouth. The cheese itself provides the dish with a pinch of saltiness, which contrasts with the aforementioned sweetness of plantains. The tigrillo mixto accompanies the bolón in a heavenly decadent fashion.
Tigrillo mixto can be described as a deconstructed bolón, since it takes on a different form though it shares a few of the same ingredients. Tigrillo mixto also involves the mashing of boiled plantains and the inclusion of white crumbly cheese, though it is not served in the shape of a ball. Specifically, butter is heated on a pan and the plantain mash is added to that pan. Afterwards, the white crumbly cheese is stirred into the plantain mash. Once the cheese has softened, whisked eggs are incorporated. The eggs, once delicately scrambled, create a creamy and irresistible plantain mixture. Pieces of fried pork belly provide the finishing touch to tigrillo mixto. I transfer a morsel of this plantain, cheese, pork belly, and egg scramble from the plate to my mouth with a fork, watching the cheese expand before my eyes. The fried pork belly counteracts the creaminess of the cooked egg yolks with salty and crispy accents. Tender, scrambled egg whites establish another dimension of texture to tigrillo mixto, complementing the smoothness of plantains. The acidity of the orange juice wonderfully cuts through the starchiness of plantains.
I understand why bananas, and hence, plantains, are one of Ecuador’s highest exports: people from all over the world must crave the creativity and depth of flavor that plantains make possible in dishes like the bolón and tigrillo mixto. Plantains have the undeniable ability to reward gastronomic imagination and to spark a variety of ideas that exquisitely come to fruition. For those who value the combination of tradition and ingenuity in food like me, I cannot think of a better ingredient to appreciate than plantains.