On Good Friday morning, doña Magdalena is stirring a large pot of broth. On a stove in the patio, her sister fries whole maduros (ripe plantains). At the kitchen table, doña Mariana guides grandchildren in making small empanadas. Doña Magdalena’s daughter tastes the picantes.
During Semana Santa, this is a common scene in the kitchens in Ecuadorian highland homes and markets. Fanesca is an Easter Week tradition that brings families together. On Good Friday, generations gather to share this dish after the procession.
Dating from pre-Hispanic times, this heavy “soup” contains 12 grains and beans. Indigenous nations in these northern Andes prepared fanesca for the celebration of Mushuc Nina (Day of New Fire), observed on the March equinox and thus marking the beginning of a new cycle of life, a new year. The meal’s name in Quichua is uchucuta, meaning tender grains cooked with chili and herbs. It was possibly accompanied by cuy (guinea pig).
After the Spanish conquest, the new rulers attached Christian meanings to this traditional meal. In the Catholic iconography, the 12 grains and beans came to signify the 12 apostles and the 12 tribes of Israel. Dried cod (bacalao), representing Jesus, was added to the recipe as well as dairy.
Fanesca is a laborious meal to prepare. Just a generation ago, its elaboration would take several days. Each ingredient has its own treatment.
The grains are meticulously soaked, cooked, peeled, and ground by hand (or with electric grinders and blenders in these modern times). The 12 grains and beans are: choclo (sweet corn), chocho (lupine beans), zapallo (a large winter squash similar to pumpkin or Hubbard), frijol blanco (white beans), habas (fava beans), zambo (another type of squash), arveja (peas), frijol rojo (red beans), maní (peanuts), garbanzo (chickpeas), mote (hominy), and melloco (a soft-fleshed tuber).
In the interim, the cream and codfish stock base is made. The grains are then added in a specified sequence.
Fanesca is served decorated with fried ripe plantain (maduro), cheese, hard-boiled eggs, mini cheese empanadas, strips of red chilies and parsley. Also on hand are several types of homemade hot sauces, including one made with zambo (squash) seeds.
The second course is molo: potatoes mashed with milk andperhaps a bit of lard or butter. It is served on a lettuce leaf and adorned with parsley, cebolla blanca and chunks of cheese.
The traditional desert course presented is cooked, sweetened figs with cheese, or arroz con leche (rice pudding).
Tips for Travellers
- If you don’t have an Ecuadorian family to invite you to the fanesca gathering, you may try this iconic dish in many restaurants (especially in the Centro Histórico of Quito). The stalls in the capital’s markets also serve up portions: Mercado Central (Avenida Pichincha and Manabí) and Mercado San Francisco (Calle Rocafuerte and Calle Chimborazo) are good places to try. Note: Many businesses are closed on Good Friday (Viernes Santo).
- Fanesca is a heavy dish. It is best to avoid eating it for dinner.
- Some establishments will give you the option of ordering it with or without the fish.
- Every year, Quito hosts a fanesca festival the week before and during Semana Santa.
Gracias a doña Magdalena y su familia, y la doña Mariana por invitarme a su mesa para aprender de la fanesca.
article and photos © Lorraine Caputo