If you like traveling to foreign places, you are probably also a lover of foreign foods. A forkfull of local fare can bring you closer to a culture and give you an intimate understanding of a people’s passion. I’ll never forget the taste of suckling pig at one of Madrid’s oldest restaurants, the unique texture of a Carribean conch salad or the tongue numbing spice of a hot peanut sauce in Thailand. Those kinds of specialties are easy to come by in those countries anytime you want but sometimes there’s a flavour or a meal you can’t find all year long, maybe only during an annual festival or celebration. In Ecuador, one such elusive lunch is called Fanesca.
Fanesca is a thick soup served in communities in Ecuador’s sierra but only during the period of Lent. After Catholics mark Ash Wednesday, signs start popping up outside restaurtants all over Quito advertising Fanesca. An Ecuadorian friend of mine recommended a restaurant owned by her sister, called Achiote, for my first Fanesca experience. She was proud to tell me their mother’s recipe was the very best, a claim you’ll hear from many others.
According to various explanations I've seen posted around town, the dish that contains 12 different kinds of beans and grains was developed by cooks in ancient cultures and dates back to pre-Columbian times. Indigenous people in Ecuador celebrated a new life cycle around the time of the Equinox in March, when the earth’s equator passes through the centre of the sun. It was also the time when they celebrated the bounty of a harvest of unripened beans, beans that they eventually used in their special soup, originally called “uchucuta” in the indigenous language of Quechua.
So how did “uchucuta” come to be celebrated as a Catholic tradition? In their attempts to win over the local people, Spanish conquerors combined parts of indigenous culture with Catholic traditions. Holy Week was just about the same time as the Equinox and so Catholics incorporated this delicious soup into their practice. Now, it’s considered an Easter soup and its 12 beans (fava, lima, adzuki, pinto…) and grains represent the 12 apostles of Jesus.
The name Fanesca is thought to have come from one of the soup’s famous cooks named Juana. Culinary admirers at the time named the meal “Juanesca” after her. Eventually “Juanesca" became known as Fanesca.
Fanesca is a perfect meatless mixture for Catholics who don't eat red meat during Holy Week, but there is no lack of protein in this hearty stew. Salt cod fish, known here in Ecuador as bacalao, is cooked seperately in milk and added to the soup as it’s eaten. In the Catholic tradition, this fish is a representation of Jesus. (Now, here’s a heavenly market for Newfoundland’s salt cod!) Depending on the recipe, other traditional foods are added too, like hard boiled eggs, fried plantains, fresh cheese, avacados and tiny cheese empanadas.
Clearly, Fanesca is not a light broth and so it's usually enjoyed as a heavy midday meal. I assure you, I was ready for a good long siesta after that lunch. I had never had anything quite like it and I loved every savoury spoonful. I look forward to eating Fanesca again soon but my window of oppourtunity is closing fast. All good things must come to an end and after Easter, Fanesca will be no more. I’ll have to console myself with the North American Easter tradition: chocolate. Luckily, here in Ecuador, there seems to be an endless supply. But that, my fellow rovers, is a subject for another blog post!
Until next time,