During my three days in Manta, I counted a total of four (!) monuments to the tuna fish, and I am sure that there are even more. This is because Manta, home to the biggest fishing fleet in the world, is said to be the global center for yellowfin tuna, with an estimated 180 processing plants for the fish in this city alone.
One would think that this meant we would be dining on a literal avalanche of the stuff, maybe cooked a la plancha or seared and set atop a mountain of greens a la Nicoise-style. Maybe it would even be served like Japanese tataki, lightly cooked on the outside and cut in thick slices. Of course it would be cubed raw and plonked into a ceviche. But Ecuadorians don’t take to their famous fish that way. If they eat it, they eat it from cans. Instead, they prize other fish for their own tables — milder, white-fleshed, less of the feel of the “office” about them, I suppose.
It’s not just fish — and by extension, shrimp, squid and seasonal crab — that Manta restaurants specialize in, of course. There are tons and tons of plantains: fried into chips, but also smashed, baked or boiled. One of my favorite discoveries was the bolon de verde, named so for its ball shape, made of boiled and mashed green plantain and later baked or fried.
Eaten for breakfast, they are accompanied by a sauce: sometimes peanut, but in our case, a tart little tomato salsa that transformed this plate from stodgy to light and flavorful with just a couple of dabs:
As fresh and juicy as the tomatoes here are, you are far more likely to encounter peanuts; there are 40 varieties in the Manabi province, where Manta is located, alone. This extends to Ecuador’s most famous dish, ceviche, in which the seafood is cooked by curing in a mix of lemon/lemon and salt; the “Jipijapa” style combines peanut paste with avocado, a pairing that is considered the pinnacle of deliciousness.
Given the opportunity to mix my own ceviche, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try peanuts with avocado myself. Cubed fresh local “oyape” fish (and I know I am not spelling that right) was mixed with a combination of lemon juice and salt, then accompanied by decent helpings of squid, octopus and shrimp. They were then added to a bowl already layered with peanut paste, mixed with avocado, onion, slivered green mango and minced cilantro, and topped, if you wanted, with either plantain or sweet potato chips, or julienned, deep-fried white carrot. That was it. That was my ceviche. And it was delicious: the peanuts grounding the acidity of everything else with a little fattiness, actually perfect with seafood.
Besides peanut, there were also possible bases made of mango puree or tomato paste; naturally, I was greedy and asked for a second helping with tomato this time, studded with fresh little cherry tomatoes. They did not, however, let me garnish my ceviche with the powdered roasted peanuts, which was a bridge too far, even for them. That was meant for dessert.
As you may have guessed, the process is always the same — curing the seafood, mixing with the base, adding the accompaniments — and presumably any seafood and tart vegetable or fruit would work. I imagine even yellowfin tuna would be a good addition, if I could have ever found it.
Dessert was a corn custard, accompanied by a strawberry sauce and a single blueberry, another addition I was not allowed to make to my ceviche. It managed to be extremely corny yet extremely sweet, all at the same time.
Out in the wild, beyond the confines of the ship or tour operators, we set out to try Manta’s delicacies on our own. The city is as chock-a-block with cevicherias as it is with free-roaming iguanas, and they all bear signs much like this one:
But one of our guides, David, said that the best cevicherias in the city would not be found via an English-language Google search. Indeed, the one he favored, Costa Rica, was a chore even for him to find on the Internet. I was determined to try it. So when the tour bus dropped us off at the port, we did the 20-minute walk past the fish market, to a seemingly obscure part of town where the restaurant could be found at the top of a very steep flight of stairs.
Unlike the types of ceviche I had learned to make the day before, this ceviche is, I guess, “Costa Rica”-style, meaning the seafood is served in a pool of lime juice and salt. At this cevicheria, there are only three choices: fish, shrimp, or a mix of the two, all served with plantain chips and, if you dared, a splash of the hot chili sauce.
These chilies are not like the Thai kind, sneaky with a slow burn; they announce themselves immediately, forcing me to add a cowardly little dab to my bowl instead of the liberal sprinklings of my husband and father-in-law. Even now, two days later, I am amazed that they are not yet sick.
Now, it’s clear that ceviche is a big deal in a seafood-focused town like Manta. But it’s not the only game in town. The next day, we headed to the main beach (Playa Murcielago), where a strip of seafood spots lines the main walkway, Pattaya-style (Malencon Esenico). Figuring out where to eat was just a game of chance. We chose Alcatraz, the restaurant closest to the beach. When we sat at our table, we were greeted with a plate of fried bananas, accompanied by that self-same roasted peanut powder:
Here, we learned that swordfish is a big deal: grilled, breaded, served with peanut sauce, served with garlic sauce. Also a big deal, in-season crab, so we chose a plate of crab claws doused in garlic butter. Grilled clams, which arrived in a peanut sauce that was not satay-like at all, but light and acidic, refreshing even. Rice with grilled chicken and lentil soup for my seafood-phobic son. And a huge half-portion of grilled mixed seafood, a melange of fresh shrimp, squid, swordfish, white fish, clams (dressed simply in lime juice and diced red onion) and another Costa Rica-style ceviche, crowned with a single grilled prawn. Everything came with rice and mashed fried plantains, alongside dressed piles of lettuce, sliced cucumber, and fresh tomato.
After a few days spent on the ship, mourning my friends and family and my daily routine (and my pillows), it was nice to have a day out with just a few of us, no particular demands to meet, no special requests to accede to (besides my son’s, who always has something when it comes to food). Toddling back to the pier, I felt fortified, if only for the few hours it will take for us to get to Guyaquil.