By Russell Maddicks
It's Easter in Ecuador and that's good news for travelers looking for a unique culinary experience, because according to Ecuadorians the true flavour of Easter is a rich, creamy soup that comes so laden down with extras that it's more like an all-you-can-eat-meal.
Made from a base of zambo (gourd), zapallo (pumpkin), melloco (Ullucus tuberosus) and chunky lumps of bacalao (salted cod), fanesca is not only hearty but holy as well.
Following the Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on Friday, fanesca was traditionally eaten for lunch on Good Friday but nowadays it's eaten for the whole of Semana Santa (Holy Week) and most almuerzo (lunch) bars will and market eateries will have a hearty fanesca on the menu for anything from $2-$10.
According to tradition, fanesca should include twelve types of grains or beans like chochos (Andean lupins), habas (faba beans), choclo (maize), arvejas (peas), and lentejas (lentils), among others. The beans and grains are meant to represent the twelve apostles and the fish symbolizes Jesus.
The final flourish is to decorate the hot soup with slices of boiled egg, mini empanadas, slices of white cheese, palmitos (palm hearts), maní (peanuts), and plátano maduro frito (fried ripe plantain).
No wonder people eat it at lunchtime. Even the Man-V.-Food guy Adam Richman would need a siesta after a bowl of Ecuador's holy soup.
Making fanesca is a tradition in many families who have their own closely-guarded recipes handed down from the abuela (grandma). It's a huge process that can take days, as the grains, dried beans and lupins must all be soaked and cooked individually before being combined in the soup. The bacalao is bought dried and salted and is prepared by soaking and cooking it in milk.
They even hold competitions in Quito and Cuenca, with highly-coveted prizes for the best fanesca.
Despite its massive popularity, there has been little serious investigation into the origins of this singular dish. The first known printed reference to fanesca only occurs in 1882, when it appears in Juan Pablo Sanz's book “El Manual de la Cocinera” (The Cook's Manual).
Some investigators maintain that it was named after "faneca" a type of fish popular in Spain and Portugal and that the recipe arrived with the Spanish conquistadors.in the 16th century.
Others have said it was cooked up in a Quito monastery by a woman called Juana and was originally called Juanesca,
However, more recently, Ecuadorian researchers have suggested the fanesca tradition could date back more than 4,000 years, to an ancient harvest festival that the Incas adopted and called Muchuc Nina (which in Quechua means Day of New Fire).
On that day a meal of boiled Andean maize and grains called Uchucuta, (or Uchukuta) was cooked with chilis and herbs and served alongside roast cuy (guinea pig) to mark the first fruits of the harvest.
As a way to aid the religious conversion of the Highland Quichua and other indigenous tribes, the Spanish conquistadors incorporated elements of Muchuc Nina, which was celebrated in March, with the Catholic rituals marking Semana Santa, or so the theory goes.
The syncretic combination of Indigenous and European beliefs found in modern Ecuador is echoed in the combination of indigenous and European ingredients used to make fanesca, making it such a unique expression of Ecuadorian culture.
However ancient its origins, its popularity shows no signs of waning. Not everybody in Ecuador takes part in the many religious festivals during Semana Santa, but few miss out on the opportunity to tuck in to a bowl of this filling pumpkin and fish soup.
So what are you waiting for? A comer... fanesca!