AP PHOTOS: Ecuador picks its best pork roaster

Associated Press
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In this Aug. 16, 2014, photo, a woman smiles while she carries a pig, which will be be fattened to be sold later, in Riobamba, Ecuador. Pork introduced by the Spaniards in colonial times has become an essential ingredient in the Ecuadorian cuisine. Slow roasted pork known as "Hornado" is a national dish and the first competition to recognize the best "Hornado" in the country took place on Sunday. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

RIOBAMBA, Ecuador (AP) — Thousands of Ecuadoreans crowded into a city park Monday to watch experts decide an issue of overriding national importance — who makes the country's best roasted pork.

It's among the Andean nation's most popular dishes, and dozens of cooks were in Riobamba for the competition to resolve the centuries-old dispute over which region makes it best, a debate that has fueled popular songs and poems.

The cook-off was called in this provincial capital in central Ecuador about 120 miles south of the capital of Quito.

Competitors prepared their entries on brass roasting plates, closely guarding their secret mixes of spices while stuffing tomatoes in the pigs' mouths and peppers in the eye sockets. The pigs emerged from the ovens with a succulent golden tone. Soon, the judges were sampling the offerings.

President Rafael Correa delivered the experts' verdict: Ecuador's best "cerdo horneado" is made by Rosa Tabango from Otavalo, a popular tourist town in the highlands north of Quito.

Wearing a white chef's hat and suit, Tabango momentarily froze as tears streaked her cheeks. Then she raised her hands in triumph as shouting and clapping spread across the crowd, crescendoing into a deafening roar.

"I'm happy," she said. "I learned the preparation from my grandparents and my mother."