It’s many things to Ecuadorans: a social event, a culinary treat, a religious and historical tradition that is prepared at home for family and friends during Holy Week. It’s called fanesca, and it’s a hearty soup made from a multitude of ingredients like grains, squash, legumes, corn and fish.
Each family has its own recipe and, if you are visiting Ecuador, you can look for a “Fanesca” sign that appears—only during the pre-Easter period—outside of many restaurants.
The origins of Fanesca are shrouded in the mists of time, and Ecuadorans debate their own versions. Some think it has Inca roots, while others insist the Spanish brought it. The many ingredients may represent the 12 apostles of Jesus, the 12 tribes of Israel, or it’s just a way to give thanks for the bounty of the harvest—either to Pagan deities or the Christian God. There is a tale about a woman in the Highlands inventing it, or perhaps that it’s imaginative concoction was served during the Lenten period when no meat is consumed. And while they may disagree on its origins, there is no debate to how much Ecuadorans look forward to enjoying it.
Because the preparation of Fanesca is so time-consuming and labor-intensive, it is a social event involving family members who gather in the kitchen to clean, shell, pare, slice, soak, salt, puree and cook the ingredients. And while they are there, the members naturally talk, laugh, gossip, and catch up on family and local news.
Last Spring, I was staying at Hacienda Porvenir, a working ranch and farm near the entry to Cotopaxi National Park south of Quito. María José Andrade and Jorge Pérez, the owners, asked if I wanted to participate in making the Fanesca. I could not contain my excitement.
The Fanesca feast—from preparation to consuming—took place over two days. On the first day, family and ranch employees meticulously removed the fava beans from their pods, and then peeled endless quantities of various beans, corn and peas.
In the time it took me to peel 10 beans, they had peeled twenty. A group decision was made to leave out lentils, because the Fanesca the year before had been too heavy. The salt cod was skinned, boned, and soaked in water and then milk. The ingredients were left overnight, and then were each cooked in a separate pot. As we worked, we talked and cackled and listened to a CD with music composed by one woman’s husband.
The recipe we followed came from Andrade’s abuela, with some of Jorge’s family traditions as well. The ingredients were fresh frijoles (beans), green peas, chochos (edible lupine seeds), corn, fava beans, lentils, yellow squash, white squash, milk, peanuts and salt cod. The side dishes we prepared were cheese empanadas, maqueños (a kind of banana), masitas (made from flour, butter, salt, sugar and milk), hard-boiled eggs, chopped parsley and molo—a potato puree.
The chef at Hacienda Porvenir nodded his approval as we worked, and said that at home, he makes sweet Fanesca—with peaches, pears and apples.
The following day, when I came into the kitchen, there was a huge pot on the stove with a base of pork fat, white onions, achiote with oil, salt and ground pepper. Finely chopped parsley was added, along with roasted peanuts that had been blended with half a liter of milk. To finish we added shredded salt cod, along with the rest of the ingredients and some of the cooking liquid from the other pots.
The women thought the brew was too thick, so they added more milk. It was boiled, stirred, and, before serving, cilantro leaves, salt and pepper were added.
It was noon when the ranch bell rang, bringing everyone from the ranch and some friends strolling into the dining room. The Fanesca and side dishes were set out buffet style with everyone taking what they wanted, sitting down on wooden benches next to long, wooden tables. I took my first taste of the fabled soup, surprised by its multitude of textures—crunchy, rich, creamy, thick.
One of the ranch hands said in his family they eat a little Fanesca and then go to Mass for three hours. He insists that Mass is the most important thing. A woman reported that in her house, they used to eat 12 dishes that represented the twelve apostles—Fanesca, corn cob with fava beans, molo, lettuce and fish, potato with peanut, arroz con leche, figs with cheese.
“Then they carry you to the cemetery!” I said, laughing. And even though we were all aware of how much we had just consumed, that didn’t stop us from enjoying blackberry pie with local wild blueberries and some traditional arroz con leche for dessert.
Judith Fein is an award-winning travel writer based in New Mexico and the author of LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel. Her website is www.GlobalAdventure.us