Published on April 5th, 20151
In Search of Fanesca
|Fanesca is a rich, creamy traditional soup typically prepared and served in Ecuador only in the week before Easter (Holy Week). The primary ingredients include figleaf gourd (sambo), pumpkin (zapallo), and twelve different kinds of beans and grains including chochos (lupines), habas (fava beans), lentils, peas, corn and others, together with bacalao (salt cod) cooked in milk, due to the Catholic religious prohibition against red meat during Holy Week. It is generally garnished with hard boiled eggs, fried plantains, herbs, parsley, and sometimes miniature empanadas. The twelve beans represent the twelve apostles of Jesus, and the bacalao is symbolic of Jesus himself. The making and eating of fanesca is considered a social or family activity.|
While last year was my first Easter living here in Cuenca, I somehow missed out on tasting this traditional delicacy – probably because I was too preoccupied with staging the first ever Cuenca Easter Egg Hunt. But not this year. With my new life here much more settled (not to mention, my Spanish quite improved), I had been looking forward to enjoying some of the many “Semana Santa” (Holy Week) traditions of my new Ecuadorian home.
Thus when I found myself knee-deep in locals streaming down the cobbled streets of El Centro on “Jueves Santo” (Holy Thursday) as I was walking home from teaching one of my EFL classes, I couldn’t help but wonder just what was going on. I dimly recalled that Jueves Santo was the night set aside for “La visita de las siete iglesias” – the traditional walk to 7 churches, so… Being the utterly shy wall-flower that I am (NOT!), I stopped a couple of lasses about my age and asked “¿Que Pasa?… ¿Por qué tanta gente?” They confirmed that they were on a march to visit 7 churches and were on their way to their 2nd one – the New Cathedral, and – did I want to tag along?
Such fun! The entire downtown area was *crawling* with people – more than I’ve ever seen in Cuenca, even at Carnaval. Suffice we squeeeeeeeezed along with the crowd entering the New Cathedral, paid our respects, and then slowly squeeeeezed our way out, and on to Santuario Mariano (the church adjacent to the Flower Market), and then onto iglesia numero tres (for me): Iglesia San Francisco. San Francisco Plaza was alive and all lit up with vendors selling all manner of street food. Again we squeeeezed into the church, paid our respects and squissshhhhed our way out.
Suffice, 3 churches was plenty for me, and I bid goodbye to my new Ecuadorian sisters (they were indeed sisters, from a family with a third sister plus *13* brothers!) But not before exchanging telephone numbers and an invite to their home soon for tamales.
But far more importantly – they also gave me the word on where to get the best “fanesca” in Cuenca over the Easter weekend.
And thus… my FANESCA QUEST was born!
Armed with the knowledge so kindly shared by my new Ecuadorian sisters, I set out on Friday to find a bowl of the famous “sopa”. Turns out, the best place in town for fanesca (according to my Ecuadorian chums) was none other than the most popular “Raymipampa” restaurant next to the New Cathedral and across the street from Parque Calderon. Indeed, as I neared the entrance around noon, there was already quite a crowd waiting to get in.
So I swiftly hopped in line and asked the folks around me (all Ecuadorians) if the Raymipampa was indeed serving fanesca. Yes, they replied, “It’s only served on Good Friday, and that’s precisely why we’re in line.” (well o.k. they said that in Spanish of course, but I’ve magnanimously translated for your benefit!). 😉
As the crowded restaurant intermittently expelled diners, the line slowly inched its way forward, I spotted a “FANESCA $6.00” sign and thought “Yay!” whilst I eagerly waited for my first taste of this once-a-year treat. Finally we reached the front door. The woman with her teenage daughter in front of me mumbled something to the maitre d’ and… he replied “No más fancesca. Está terminado!” And to reinforce his point, he quickly scampered about tearing down the “FANESCA” signs that had been plastered around the entry.
Um, can you spell UH-OH!!!?
Ah but… once again my “lucky star” was with me (I SWEAR it seems to follow me wherever I go) because… When it was my turn to be seated, I beseeched the maitre d’ and… he nodded, yes – there might be ONE LAST BOWL OF FANESCA left for me!!
And the frosting on the
cake, uh soup? As the restaurant was extremely crowded, the maitre d’ seated me at a small table with a most lovely Ecuadorian woman:
“Lucy” was born in Ecuador, but has lived in New York for many years. About my age, we had much in common to chat about. And though she spoke perfect English, we favored speaking Spanish during our entire lunch!
Thus, my search for fanesca proved not only successful (not to mention “mmm-mmm-good”), but the journey was blessed by the opportunity to share these special Ecuadorian traditions with not one, but THREE lovely Ecuadorian lasses!
P.S. For those looking to slurp their own bowl of fanesca in Cuenca next year (only on Good Friday), after my Ramipampa lunch, I found a few other small cafes serving this once-a-year treat. Indeed, the flavor was so delicious, I bought a big tub of it “para llavar” (to carry home) for just $3!
And for those who can’t wait – here’s a link to a fairly easy version (albeit with only 10, not 12 “apostles” but still…): Ecuadorian Easter Soup
What about you – have you tasted fanesca (or even heard of it)? What did you think?