Grandma's Hands - Abel Castro
You opened Ñaño Ecuadorian Kitchen in 2013 in Hell’s Kitchen – why here?
I looked for spaces everywhere for about two years but a good friend advised that I should open in an area I knew well. I’ve been living in Hell’s Kitchen since 1990, so I knew right away I had to stay in my neighborhood.
A nano is a unit prefix meaning one billionth. It’s also a music player by Apple. I’m guessing neither is the correct meaning for your restaurant? What’s the story behind the name?
Ñaño means "brother" in Quechua, the Incan language. In Ecuador, this word is still used to refer to your sibling or friend, just as the word brother is used in the English language. Because of the word etymology and because I wanted a catchy-short name for the restaurant, I felt this would be perfect.
For those of us who don’t know much about Ecuadorian cooking, what are the key ingredients?
You’ll find flavors involving plantains, peanut sauce, and fruits such as passion fruit, coconut, and a native sour fruit called naranjilla. But there are more flavors used depending on the region. If you go to the Andes you’ll find roasted or fried pork and lots of soups using grains or root vegetables, while on the coast we consume a lot of seafood and shellfish.
Many of the dishes are tried and tested family recipes, right?
Yes, from my brother’s hot sauce to my sister’s tamarind sauce. But I must pay tribute to my grandmother Inés, who was an incredible baker and cook. Her dining room table was always filled with multi-tier cakes and hors d’oeuvres. The yucca mash, the herb marinated steak, and the tortillas de verde are all hers. But the chicken stew has my mom’s hands all over it.
Do they approve of your interpretation?
God! My mom still passes by the restaurant after bingo every week to spot check on me.
What’s the most popular thing on the menu?
By far, seco de pollo is the number one seller. Most have not tried Ecuadorian food before so when customers ask me for suggestions, I tell them that, to me, it is the most authentic dish. None else but Ecuador makes that dish.
You have a dish named after Rebecca. Who she?
When we were the new kid on the block, Ñaño was not this popular. My neighbors really were my only fans. Andrew was one of those who believed in me and kept coming back. He would come alone or bring friends. Once, he brought his girlfriend Rebecca, who asked for a vegetarian dish. I quickly put together all of my vegetarian sides and composed this essential part of our menu. They still come around and when they come, they get royal treatment. They are also happily married and stayed in Hell’s Kitchen.
Your cocktail list sounds powerful. Should we handle it with care?
No need to fear. Aguardiente, or firewater, sounds lethal, but has the same alcohol content as tequila or vodka … although we are heavy-handed pourers.
If you could cook for anyone, alive or dead, who would be at your fantasy dinner party?
I really LOVE cooking for my partner, friends and family, but Lidia Bastianich really excited me about cooking and taught me how to simplify things.
Where else do you eat/drink in the neighborhood when you’re not at Ñaño?
Ñaño ECUADORIAN KITCHEN
691 10th Ave - 47th/48th St
The original version of this story appeared in W42ST magazine in August 2016.