Raw or braised llama meat comes to the table with flavor and history

Raw or braised llama meat comes to the table with flavor and history

Salt and macambo on the plate to flavor the raw meat of a mammal that was missing from the tables in Ecuador. So far, with chef Mauricio Acuña’s innovation of putting llama meat on the menu.

The wool of this distant relative of the camel is used to make clothing, but its meat has rarely been used in gastronomy.

Chef Acuña, who works at Spanish starred restaurants Ferran Adrià and Martín Berasategui, is trying to change that.

At his El Salnés restaurant in north Quito, the 50yearold chef offers raw llama loin for a different taste. It also serves a cut from the neck, which when cooked has a taste similar to pork.

The population of the only beast of burden in preColumbian America increased with the expansion of the Inca Empire, Carlos Montalvo, an archaeologist at the Casa del Alabado Museum of PreColumbian Art in Quito, tells AFP.

Archaeological records show that the inhabitants of the Ecuadorian highlands ate mainly cuy (guinea pigs) and deer, with no record of huge herds of llamas.

According to Montalvo, because the animals were not “present in the culinary tradition”, they were exchanged for the sheep, cows and pigs brought by the Europeans.

Restaurants for foreigners

Mauricio Acuña works with raw llama meat at his El Salnes restaurant in Quito  Rodrigo BUENDIA / AFP  Rodrigo BUENDIA / AFP

Mauricio Acuña processes raw llama meat in his restaurant El Salnés in Quito

Image: Rodrigo BUENDIA / AFP

El Salnés is part of a new wave of Quito restaurants experimenting with local ingredients using modern techniques.

Acuña isn’t the first Ecuadorian chef to experiment with camelid meat. For a decade, the luxurious Hotel Casa Gangotena has been serving steaks from the pallet in Quito’s historic center.

After many years, with the help of the UN’s Small Donations program, the chef came to a community that produces llama meat in the southern province of Chimborazo, and from there managed to get it to popular markets in Quito.

Susana Yánez has been running her stall at Las Cuadras market for over 30 years, showing half the body of a skinned llama. Though the seller sees orders from restaurants and hotels increasing, she admits llama meat “doesn’t sell very well” even though it’s priced similarly ($3.50 per kilo, with bone in) to pork and lamb.

At Quito’s Central Market, Ana Taco, one of the sellers of the meat, says they “mainly buy from restaurants that foreigners come to.”

In the Andes of Peru and Bolivia, consumption of llamas is more common. However, Ecuadorian guests prefer pork, cuy or seafood from the coast.

In turn, llamas, with their long necks and bananashaped ears, are considered rural pets, tourist attractions, or sacred animals. They’re not that popular for dinner.

The chef believes this is due to “cultural erosion” and foreign practices. “It’s time to take on older farming using methods that are fully ingrained in our culture.”

“Ecologically correct”

Mauricio Acuña works with llama meat in his El Salnes restaurant in Quito  Rodrigo BUENDIA / AFP  Rodrigo BUENDIA / AFP

Mauricio Acuña works with llama meat at his restaurant El Salnés in Quito

Image: Rodrigo BUENDIA / AFP

Gabriel Barriga of the Intiñan Association of Llama Breeders estimates its population at 20,000 animals between the provinces of Imbabura, Pichincha, Tungurahua, Chimborazo, Bolívar and Azuay.

In the Andes Mountains, it’s considered an “ecologically correct” animal: Its padded paws don’t damage the heath soil like cows, and its teeth cut the grass instead of uprooting like sheep, says Barriga.

Indigenous Quechua families are responsible for the small herds. They also eat them, especially dried with salt “charqui” style, preserved in this way for years.

For more than 30 years, Intiñan has funded the purchase of llamas in Chimborazo in a project that includes vet visits and even animalbased cooking classes. However, due to the pandemic, the project was halted at the end of 2020.

Now the bet of chefs like Acuña is to popularize it and bring it right into the home.

“Not just a restaurant,” says the chef, “but in supermarkets, sooner or later it will be there”.