Gastronomy unites people and cultures. It’s the the most basic method of sharing—teaching us teamwork, reciprocity, and enjoyment in the delicious delicacies of each plate. Perhaps the world is wrought with tension in our modern age; but we are taking to take this month to celebrate diversity and fusion through the palate of Quito, Ecuador. Introducing you to the best offerings—from traditional to modern, local to international—we take pride in presenting you with a tasteful series of cuisine in our capital city.
This week, we explore the beloved national dish known as “Fanesca.” With a variety of presentations in and of itself, and a history as complex as its many flavors, this Ecuadorian favorite presents a culinary treasure to experience.
History as Old as Time
If you merely mention “Fanesca” to any Ecuadorian, get ready for a story to be told. This traditional soup has a history as old as memory dates, and is lived year after year during the March/April week of Easter (“Semana Santa,” as it’s locally called). Its base combines 12 different fresh grains, in a rich concoction that is then adorned with a variety of delicious toppings. Its exact origin is still unknown; however, Maria Baez Kijac, food historian and Quito native, writes in her book:
“Fanesca represents a Christian ritual that was practiced in the catacombs in Rome during the persecution of the Christians. During Holy Week, the Christians would sneak into the catacombs carrying food, mainly grains and legumes, which were put into one big pot to be distributed among all. That is why, even to this day, it is the custom to give fanesca to relatives, friends, neighbors, and the needy” (Robertson, 2017).
Based on this Roman origin theory, the 12 different grains used in Fanecsa are believed to represent the 12 disciples (Robertson, 2017), or the 12 tribes of Israel (Drake, 2017). Likewise, the meatless soup (often times prepared with dried, salted cod, or completely vegetarian) provides an option in concordance with the Catholic rules for the last Friday of the Lenten season.
That said, other origin explanations cite the Incan understanding of the 12 months in the planting lunar calendar, with the 12 kinds of fresh grains as celebration of the Earth’s first-gifted harvest of this cycle (Fuerez, 2018). This theory is also supported by the fact that the Incan “Pawkar Raymi” spring festival also takes place during the dates of Easter week, and celebrates the first, fresh harvest.
With a history that pre-dates memory of origin, the Fanesca tradition has been 100% adopted by Ecuadorian essence. Each region has its own method of preparing the Fanesca, and each family believes its version to be the best. All Fanesca recipes feature a thick stew base of pumpkin and fig-leaf gourd, with additional key ingredients including a combination of potatoes, peas, lupin beans, and more. Carefully on top, the soup is adorned with a mixture of special additions, which often feature avocado, fresh cheese, fried dough, tomato slices, herbs, onions, fried plantain, and boiled egg. Finally, the salted cod: its strong flavor is the most especially-awaited guest to some and the most ardently-avoided nuisance to others, a preference endlessly debated (Pujol, 2019).
Big Capital: The Best of Fanesca in Quito
Quito is not only the capital of Ecuador, but the pooling capital of Fanesca variety and excellence. Each year, the city hosts a “Best Fanesca” competition, bringing together top chefs and the most closely-kept Fanesca secrets. An exacting panel of judges tastes the special preparation in all participating restaurants, finally awarding the much-anticipated prize of the nation’s best traditional gastronomy.
One chef that year after year gains this honoring title is Angel Valdiviezo, master chef at the Spicy Bistro restaurant of the Hotel Mercure Alameda. According to his expertise, the soup base must be prepared with special care, for it guards all the best flavor:
“Our fanesca is recognized for maintaining a historical and ancestral recipe. [The] secret consists in draining the salt cod and throwing away the first water, in order to then soak it in milk for 24 hours. This milk base is used as the main base” (Robertson, 2017).
His special version of Fanesca also features ancient grains like lentils and melloco; according to an article feature by NPR, his process is laborious: “Valdiviezo starts 24 hours ahead with the soaking of the cod. Then, he and his staff peel and cook the grains, prepare the refrito (fried, spiced onions) and simmer them together over low heat with the rest of the ingredients. The process can take around 5 hours.”
“For all Ecuadorians, this dish constitutes a family gathering. Children and grandchildren peel the grains, and the more experienced family members such as the mother or the grandmother take charge of cooking the refrito and then adding other ingredients” (Robertson, 2017).
With personal touch, trained excellence, and superb ingredients, it’s no wonder that the Spicy Bistro Fanesca stands out. The best of the country’s best: it’s a timeless, delicious, tradition.
- Drake, A. (2017, May 08). Fanesca – An Ecuadorian Tradition. Retrieved June 7, 2019, from https://www.notyouraverageamerican.com/fanesca/
- Fuerez, José. Fanesca Origin [Personal interview]. (2018).
- Pujol, L. (2019, February 19). Fanesca ecuatoriana – Ecuadorian Easter soup. Retrieved June 7, 2019, from https://www.laylita.com/recipes/fanesca/
- Robertson, A. E. (2017, March 02). Ecuador’s Fanesca Is A Lenten Soup Flavored With Centuries Of Tradition. Retrieved June 6, 2019, from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/03/02/517969323/ecuadors-fanesca-is-a-lenten-soup-flavored-with-centuries-of-tradition