Michelle O. Fried has spent her career cooking side-by-side with mothers and grandmothers from various parts of the world. Guardians of secret recipes passed down through the generations, these women made Michelle a trusted part of their inner circles, from Senegal to Ecuador. For nearly five decades, she’s made her home in Ecuador, devoting herself to the creation of Andean food. Her goal? Designing recipes for the modern kitchen that capture the traditional flavors and nutritional value of Ecuadorian cooking.
Her meticulous research has yielded two gorgeous cookbooks, Food of Ecuador: Traditional Recipes for Today and A World of Food with the Ingredients of Ecuador. You can also explore some of her mouthwatering Andean recipes by visiting her website.
We recently spoke with Michelle, from her home in Ecuador, about the process of translating traditional Ecuadorian food into recipes that are both accessible for today’s cooks and high in nutritional value.
1. Tell our readers a little bit about your background and how you were first introduced to Andean cuisine.
I’ve always been intrigued by foreign cultures, and at 17, I traveled to the Philippines through a high school exchange. That trip made me realize how big and wide the world is, how delicious and varied, and I knew I wanted to explore more. Once I completed undergraduate school, I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Senegal. There I cooked a lot, kind of as an anthropologist. I was only 21 or 22, and I cooked and cooked and cooked with women.
As I cooked with people, I talked with them about health through food. Later, studying at Columbia University, I found myself pursuing a public health degree in nutrition. I ultimately chose to be a nutritionist to justify my passion for food. Food is also a really easy way into people’s lives. Studying at Columbia, I met the man who’s the father of my three children. At 27 years old, I moved with him to Ecuador, and I’ve been living here for the past almost 50 years. I’ve had the opportunity to work and enjoy other cultures in South America and Africa, but Ecuador’s always been my home base.
2. What is it that you love most about Andean food?
I was already a nutritionist when I came to Ecuador. But I was amazed by the huge variety of fruits that I had never seen or tasted— all of the different colors, the different shapes. A lot of them had small seeds that weren’t all that palatable but, sieved out the juices and puréed were wonderfully exotic. It just intrigued me. Ecuador has many ecological niches and inter-Andean valleys, which permit a lot of diversity within a small proximity. I live in a valley only 15 minutes from Quito, but here I can have avocados, oranges, lemons and figs growing year-round. Up the hill in Quito though, it’s too cold to have any of those fruits. Ecuador is absolutely wonderful because you don’t have to travel far to experience great biodiversity.
As a nutritionist, I also value the diversity of fruits and vegetables from a nutritional standpoint. Dietary variety is a central hallmark of good nutrition. No one set of foods can possibly have everything you need for optimal health. From a nutritional standpoint, one protein source has different nutritional value than another; one carbohydrate is different from another. There is great nutritional value in the wide variety of ingredients available here.
3. What do you think is the secret to great Andean cuisine?
The secret of Andean cuisine (including the tropical areas of Andean countries bordering the Pacific), is something that exists as a concept in some other cuisines, too. It has to do with making something we call here a “refrito,” where onions, garlic, and maybe green pepper are sautéed together in a small amount of fat, perhaps tomatoes would be added at the end. This sauté, as a seasoning base, results in a very different flavor than what you’ll find in most European-style cuisine where generally onions and garlic would be added straight into a liquid.
4. Tell our readers a bit about the recipe you chose and why.
I chose Quinoa Cream Soup with No Cream because it is definitely a favorite of many, many people. Quinoa has the perfect balance of amino acids; it’s a complete protein. Quinoa is one of my favorite Andean foods, thanks to its versatility in the kitchen and its incredible nutritional quality. I love the gentle crunch of its fiber. (Fiber is what’s missing in modern diets.)
The recipe is vegetarian; I’m always looking for recipes that don’t use meat, trying to prioritize environmental sustainability. When you prepare this incredible soup, you could use milk or make it vegan by substituting almond or oatmeal milk instead. It can be made with peanuts or ground pepitas to smooth and thicken it. Both give it a wonderful creaminess. It’s very healthy and easy to make, and people adore it. Thus to make it a full meal, I’d add a green leafy vegetable (e.g., turnip greens, kale, or swiss chard) and some wonderful Andean potatoes. But just as it’s written, I’m sure you´ll love its gentle wholesomeness. It’s become my comfort food.
Quinoa Cream Soup with No Cream
1 1/3 cup rinsed quinoa (any color, even though the regular beige/white one is excellent)
6 cups water
1 tablespoon butter
annatto paste (optional, merely to give color)
2/3 cup minced scallions
4 tablespoons smooth natural peanut butter or 5 tablespoons dry-roasted pepitas
2 cups milk
(1 fresh chili pepper, Serrano or Jalapeño – optional)
Please click on the link to obtain the full instructions for Michelle’s Quinoa Cream Soup with No Cream.
Exploring Ecuadorian and Andean Food
Over the years, the food and folk of the Andes have been Michelle’s best teachers. She credits them with helping her develop a life of flavor. Today, Michelle is considered an expert on Andean food and leading a lifestyle that’s healthy, delicious, and sustainable. Her colorful blog and beautiful cookbooks remain excellent resources for adding variety and nutritional value to your family’s meals. And when you’re ready to explore the perfect Andean getaway, check out our Peru Family Adventure.