Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Few More Thoughts About Life in Cuenca, especially if you are sensitive to glutens

  Much of this has been written elsewhere in the blogs but I thought I'd touch on a few issues I've discovered after nearly 4 months of life in South America.  First the info I've gathered about being gluten intolerant or celiac= cannot eat wheat, rye or barley. May cause intestinal problems with permanent damage, inflammation all over, keeping certain areas irritated and painful.
This typical almuerzo (lunch) made in the home of a friend was nearly all safe for those who cannot eat wheat, barley or rye. The pancake looking things center left - some were made of corn only. Incredibly considerate of this friend!

  There is a lot of barley here in Cuenca, it kind of sneaks into things like soup and cereals so this is one to watch for if you react to it.  If you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, it seems reasonable to be a little nervous about eating in Ecuador if eating glutens can make you sick.  Being intolerant of gluten just makes life a little more complicated.  I am sharing some thoughts about ways to manage.  These are just my own ideas because people react to different things.

Making a transition to local foods is fine with this caveat: if you are moving here, I would bring a whole suitcase of brown rice flour, some sorghum flour, and a gluten free mix for either bread or pancakes, because those things are NOT available here anywhere  that I have found. Pamela's or Authentic Foods both have fine products in the US. Can be ordered on Amazon but watch the prices and be sure it is free ship.  Finding products locally is also a great option in the US. I have not been able to locate teff flour here.  I liked adding a little teff because it is unusually high in protein and adds a slightly nutty flavor to baked goods.  Related to that middle eastern grain, there are not many Thai foods here in Cuenca, such as the noodle mixes, coconut milk for some reason is beyond expensive here, and I have not located any coconut flour although coconuts are everywhere. I tried pulverizing coconut in my blender and it was successful but fairly coarse. Fine for cookies.

On the positive side, in Cuenca I have found banana flour, quinoa flour, blue corn flour (which Ecuador calls harina de negro) and something I don't think I'll use even though I bought some: vetch flour. Its gluten free but later I read that it is described as a noxious weed in the US. On the plus side, these grains are packaged in small quantities (approx 1 pound) and usually well under $1. so you can experiment without a big outlay of cash. The banana flour made a marvelous cake!

 I have ground brown rice in a coffee type grinder but it is not fine enough although its ok for cookies in a pinch.  I went to a specialty shop to get corn starch and potato starch (to make the gluten free baking mix).  I plan to buy a grinder when I visit the US next - expensive but I believe we will realize a savings because of grinding items I simply cannot find to bake  and usually make all of our food.

Remember I have only lived here about 4 mo so there are a ton of tiendas I have not explored.  I have had both a Cuencana friend and ex-pats try to locate brown rice flour and finally the woman/owner of Kookaburra Cafe, Jenny, told me I just would not find it anywhere.  She had some good tips and is aware of the needs of people who are gluten free .Her husband Chris told me where to buy fresh pan de yuca - little rolls with a bit of melted cheese inside, delicious when just baked. I have yuca flour but have not tried making pan de yuca yet myself.  Must do that.  It is easy and gf.

We do not go out to eat often but that is just how we normally are. I like to make healthy foods and manage the type of oil used, etc. And I need to manage how things are prepared. Also Cuencanos will tell you what they think you want to hear so if you ask if there is wheat used in the soup after explaining to them that it is not ok for you to eat it, they will say "Oh, no wheat" (in Espanol of course).  They are not lying, they genuinely want to please.  There seems to be no understanding of celiac disease or gf needs of some people here. I'm sure there are celiacs here but perhaps it is much less known/diagnosed/treated. More than half of the population of Ecuador does not get adequate basic health care. 

I love the fresh veggie markets. The tropical fruits are cheap, exotic and delicious.  There are supermarkets "SuperMaxi" has 3 of them around Cuenca where a lot of upscale Cuencanos shop, as well as a lot of gringos.  Prices are all over the map.  Peanut butter, the imported brand name is $7+/jar.  Most people who are addicted to peanut butter bring it back and then have others bring some down. Products made in Ecuador tend to be surprisingly inexpensive.  2 kilograms of sugar for $1.25 (that is over 4 pounds). Bananas 30 cents per pound but on Wednesdays, all produce is 20% off at SuperMaxi.
Good to know!

Breakfast is no problem, easy to work around regarding wheat sensitivity, so we go out for breakfast  usually once a week.  Sometimes, I can find a gluten free granola cereal at SuperMaxi grocery but not always. It is made in Ecuador and is called "Quinua y Amaranto". Today it was in stock and cost $3.28 for about 1/2 pound.  Everyone says if you see something you like, stock up because it may disappear and not be stocked again for a long time.

Lunch is great if you have no allergies but hard for celiacs because it is fun if you bump into someone and they say "lets get almuerzo".  You never know just what will be served or how it was prepared(dipped in flour?).  They love corn here and make it into many things: breads, tortillas, etc, etc. So that is ok except that sometimes there is wheat flour in the recipe too. After a few more months of living here, I predict I'll know where are good places for people who need to eat gluten free.

We don't go out for dinner often.  We are aware of a couple of places where there are things on the menu that are fine. The Hotel Victoria, the restaurant is called Les Jardins, has a fabulous chef who speaks English, was trained in Argentina, is such a great, friendly fellow.  He was very solicitous when we were there after I explained the gluten thing.  I'd recommend having Hotel Victoria on your list of places to eat.  They also have a fantastic view and the prices are not high compared to the US.  You'll be creating your own path to restaurants you like when you are here.

Remember people are all different so what you react to may not cause the next person any problem. And what I like may not be a place you'd enjoy.  Weaving a path that suits you is really what retirement is all about. Most people have budget concerns but can work within those boundaries here in Cuenca. Many people need to try a number of things before settling into retirement that includes activities, people and places they love. Cuenca lends itself very beautifully to this quest of retirees and others.

Back to food for a minute: pasta and pizza are big here and several are delicious but...all wheat so far as I've found.  So that is one item you may want to bring if you buy any prepared gf stuff to pack because I've not been able to locate pasta, pizza crust or gluten free bread mixes.  I had a favorite pasta brand but cannot recall the name.  I believe it had quinoa and something else and did not get soggy like some do.

Well, this got too long as my things tend to do.  Hope this is helpful.   If you are researching a place to which you may move, spend as much time there as you can, explore other cities in the area, try to get a sense of each place - how are people treated, how clean is the area? Is housing available?

Oh, one more thought.  There is an airline approved foot locker you can order on Amazon for $40 plus free shipping.  It holds a LOT and counts as one checked bag. A retired airline pilot told us about it.  Of course it cannot weigh over 50 pounds but....still.  Some people bring their favorite "Costco sized" detergent because those sold here are kind of different.  I have not had any problem. We decided not to buy a washer and dryer now because a laundry service is a block away.  They wash, dry and fold all of our clothes for about $2.50/week.  We take the detergent (it saves a little).

 I have had moderately dry skin all of  my life but it is better here.
The cream used for whipping is out of this world delicious. Rich and thick like cream from the 1950's
The water in Cuenca is treated AND it is delicious right out of the tap.  I took probiotics (at Target or any drug store) for 2 weeks before I arrived and 3 weeks after and had no intestinal upset or related issues. Check with your doctor, of course.

If I step one foot out of Cuenca, I drink bottled water.  There are parasites and amoebas and nasty things.  We soak every single edible fruit or veg when it comes in the door.  The soak stuff Kilol, a bacteriacide, required only 3-4 drops in a quart of water, soak for 3 min and rinse off.  Kilol is available in every grocery store in the produce section, lasts a long time and is not expensive.

Well, lets wrap this up for today.
Hope you are having a tremendous week wherever you are!


Feisty the cat just cannot seem to relax.  Yes that is a heating pad  - she likes to lie on it (it is not on).

And the next blog post will be something about quilting. These things seemed timely.

 Cuenca University is very centrally located.  They have a nice pool for swimming.
 The Tomebamba River
Below, a bag of 40 limons (like limes) cost 50 cents today.  Len the photographer thought it looked pretty on the new quilt.


  1. Hi Sharon--

    Thanks for the great info. It is invaluable to me. The gluten free bloggers have been having monthly "ratio rallys" where each month the bloggers work on a recipe. A couple of months ago it was fresh pasta. Jenn cuisine hosted, but in addition to her pasta recipe you can find links to all of the other pasta recipes--I think there are 16 of them. Here is the link:

    Another blogger has created a handy dandy chart of gluten free flours including grams of flour per 1/4 cup. Teff is listed as 5g. Ignoring the bean flours, the next highest are Amaranth and Quinoa flour followed by sorghum and buckwheat flour---you could probably sub out quinoa flour for teff flour gram for gram in small amounts. Soy flour and oat flour are usually also listed as high protein flours. Yuca flour is a low protein flour (I've seen it equated to tapioca flour). Banana flour is also a low protein flour. Here is a link:

    Thanks again for the info


  2. Hi --

    Thanks for the GF info! I am not celiac, but do watch the gluten because of inflammation.

    My husband and I lived in PDX for 10 years. We left in 2003 to work in Las Vegas, and are now in San Francisco. However, we are planning a year-long stay in Cuenca to see if it suits us.

    We will be here in the States for another year or so. But I would be interested in finding out what you have located in the GF arena. Keep on posting!