by David Cecelski
The sudden richness and diversity of Latin American cookery here continues to surprise, awe, and delight me. My newest discovery is an Ecuadorian bakery in Raleigh called La Espiga. It’s very popular with the region’s small but growing Ecuadorian community. But for newcomers to South American cuisine like me, the proprietors, cousins Cory Belonga and Iván López, also offer a wonderful introduction to their homeland’s traditional cookery.
At La Espiga you can find several kinds of traditional Ecuadorian breads, rolls, and empanadas. The sweets are really special, too. My family’s favorites are the alfajores, two shortbread cookies with a layer of caramel in the middle, sprinkled with sugar and shaved coconut.
The cookie’s historical pedigree goes deep into Ecuador’s Spanish colonial past. They’re said to date to the cultural mixing that occurred hundreds of years ago, during the Moorish occupation of Andalusia, Spain’s southernmost province.
All the bakery’s cakes, cookies, pies, and other sweets are keepers. La Espiga serves baked goods that are very much in the U.S. tradition, but also many that are typically Ecuadorian, including guava turnovers, passionflower bars, and delicious sugar cookies called señoritas, as well as many others.
As much as I like their sweets, what really draws me to La Espiga are the special meals that they serve on Saturdays. They prepare a daily lunch meal during the week, too—one dish each day—but La Espiga’s cooks make a feast of some of Ecuador’s most revered dishes on Saturdays, starting with a simple traditional breakfast of plantain, rolled up in sort of a ball with pork, cheese, onion, and green pepper, and served (like seemingly everything in Ecuadorian cooking) with ají, the ancient Andean hot sauce made from chiles, cilantro, onion and garlic.
And then there’s the Saturday lunch specials: they’re always changing, but the delicacies I’ve seen, just to name a few, are ones like seco de chivo(braised goat stew), hornado con mote y ají (slow roasted pork served with pickled onions and ají), ceviche de camarón (raw shrimp marinated in lime juice, cilantro, and usually onion, garlic, and tomatoes, served with a classic Ecuadorian side dish—popcorn), and caldo de bollas de verde, a soup made with yuca, potatoes and plantain balls in a beef and peanut broth.
Another Saturday special, corviche, might be my favorite dish that I’ve had at La Espiga so far. It’s a yuca bread stuffed with fish, fried, and served with ají, and it’s out of this world good.
Oh—and before I forget—be sure to try the hayacas when La Espiga has them. They’re a glorious kind of Ecuadorian tamal that, from what I’ve heard, is especially popular around holidays. The chicken hayacas must take hours to make and seem to have dozens of ingredients, including slices of hard-boiled egg and green olives stuffed with Spanish pimientos, all wrapped up neatly in banana leaves and held together with a feathery little string.
Those weekend specials aren’t on the bakery’s menu or even on the specials board in the bakery, but just ask for the “Ecuadorian special of the day.” The bakery’s very friendly staff will take care of you, and probably give you a free sample or two of an Ecuadorian dessert or drink to try, too.
Also, the weekend specials at La Espiga include some really amazing seasonal dishes, like the Lenten fish soup called fanesca that they make only this time of year, during Holy Week. It’s made with salt cod, gourd and/or pumpkin, and twelve kinds of beans and grains, one for each of Jesus’ apostles, and cooked in milk. Ecuadorians consider the soup a national treasure. Calvin Trillin, the New Yorker’s fantastic humorist and food writer, once timed a trip to Ecuador for Holy Week merely so he could findfanesca. He could have just come to Raleigh.
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La Espiga is located at 6320 Capital Boulevard in Plantation Square, a strip mall near the intersection with US 540, Raleigh’s outer beltline. Their website is www.espigabakery.com. You can learn more about their daily specials on their Facebook page. Follow them on Facebook, too, if you want to learn about their Ecuadorian reunions or the new Ecuadorian Association. If you want to contact them about preparing cakes, pies, or other treats (including fanesca, which usually has to be ordered ahead of time), you can reach them at (919) 872-6446 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.