Ecuadorian food markets are very different from the touristy artisan markets that many travelers will find.
The food markets are from a long Ecuadorian tradition of vendors gathering to sell their goods. They are generally open, but still in the same building each day. They have many entrances and stores all along the outside, but also a large open area with vendors inside.
In the food markets, obviously, generally food is found. There are many, many types of fruits, vegetables, cuts of meat, fish, cheese, milk, eggs, spices, and teas. There are generally more options of fruits and vegetables in the outdoor markets, as well as more cuts of meat available.
For example, I like to buy different kinds of nuts and bring them around with me so I have a snack or little lunch whenever I need it. I live by both a grocery store and outdoor market, so it’s pretty easy to compare the two. The grocery store has 3 types of nuts: peanuts, almonds and walnuts. As nuts are in the U.S., these are all fairly expensive. A really little bag of walnuts usually runs to about $4.00. In contrast, at the outdoor market there are many, many more choices of nuts, including peanuts, almonds, walnuts, pistachios, hickory nuts and sunflower seeds, and these go for a lower price. The walnuts are around $2.80 or $3.00 at the most for a larger bag. Some Ecuadorians question the quality found in markets, but I have not gotten sick from them. Overall, the outdoor food markets generally have more variety for a lower price.
Restaurants are also a part of most Ecuadorian food markets. Almuerzo (lunch) restaurants are especially popular as it is the largest meal of the day. Generally restaurants sell a set lunch for under $3.00, unless this is a touristy and upscale restaurant, where it will obviously be more. There is a wall of restaurants in the market I frequent and they have signs out describing what the set lunch is. This is not uncommon in outdoor markets, nor is it uncommon to find an ice cream place. Ecuadorians seem to love ice cream, so it is sold absolutely everywhere-including on the bus.
Haggling and talking with the vendors is the reason that many Americans and Ecuadorians do not enjoy going to the market. In many instances, the consumer can haggle with the vendor to lower the price while simultaneously adding some to the quantity of fruits or vegetables you are buying. Meats are generally non-negotiable, and as most vendors assume that you know this, they may be rude about not wavering from the price. There is an easy way to tell though, what can be negotiated and what cannot. The foods that are clearly marked with a price, is not negotiable, while the foods that are unmarked are up for negotiating. (This is generally true in artisan markets as well.) Some of the people I have met here love going to the market, and others despise it because of the personal interactions and pressure associated with negotiating.
Grocery stores are very similar in Ecuador to what you would find in the United States. Many sell other things, like creams and soap, as the ones in the US now do as well. The prices are generally higher in the grocery stores, but the quality of the food is thought to be higher as well. Also, there are not refrigerators in the outdoor markets, but are in the groceries, so the quality of refrigerated food could be affected in the markets. (Although Americans tend to refrigerate things that don’t really need it, like eggs.) This does mean that grocery stores tend to have a much larger selection of dairy. Usually these are more types of cheese, yogurt and milk, although the milk is not usually refrigerated.
A discussion on artisan markets will be coming soon as I am going to the largest outdoor markets in Latin America this weekend: Otovalo.