By Lindsay Sterling
Last weekend a friend in the neighborhood, Marco Caceres, taught me how to make his favorite dish from his childhood in Ecuador: sopa de pescado. It’s made of a simple set of ingredients: white fish, fresh tomato, red onions, garlic, cilantro, olive oil, and lemon. I was delighted to see how easy it can be to make a fantastic seafood meal, and I was touched by the story of how Marco came to make this soup here.
Marco grew up watching his mother cook for his family of twelve in Cuenca, a city of about 500,000 people in the Andes Mountains. Cuenca is known for having seventy-degree days year round, access to Incan ruins, and stunning Spanish colonial architecture. The way his daughter described Cuenca’s outdoor markets, they sounded like something out of Alice in Wonderland. The coconuts are the size of basketballs. The papayas are two feet long. And there are fresh mangos, pineapples, bananas, pomegranates, apples, peaches, and a variety of corn, the kernels of which are the size of dried plums.
When Marco was ten years old, he took his first trip out of the mountains to the city of Guyaquil near the coast. It was there that he tasted for the first time sopa de pescado, a tangy fish soup with pale pink broth, studded with green cilantro leaves. As if he had shared his love for this soup with the chefs in his hometown, soon after he returned home the soup caught on in Cuenca and he got to eat it often.
When he was a young man studying Andean pan flute, he fell in love with an American woman who was teaching English in Ecuador. He felt like they would be together “for the rest of life,” as he recalled. The time came, however, when she had to return to the United States. He got an opportunity to play music professionally in Germany and Norway, so he went. In Norway, his heart still broken, he secured a visa to visit his love in the United States.
In New York City the relationship fizzled in less than a month. He recalled telling his mother on the phone that he would be coming back to Ecuador. His mother suggested, “Stay for a couple more months, and then see.” He decided to take her advice. While he waited for something good to happen in New York, he set about figuring out how to make sopa de pescado. He experimented with different ingredients, methods, and proportions until he finally found the combination that tasted just like home.
One day in the subway he met another Ecuadorian musician who knew a handful of other players of traditional Andean music. They launched a prosperous career playing live music and selling CDs in the subway, museums, and fairs and festivals across the U.S. One woman from France who heard their music in Grand Central Station was so captivated that she went to see their next show at a museum, and then went dancing with the band afterward. Marco and her got together another day. He made her soup. They fell in love, got married, and moved to Maine to raise a family.