The afternoon was gray, drizzly and, even for a Good Friday, doleful. So the brightly colored sign in the restaurant window – had someone scooped up all the highlighters at the stationery store? – shone out all the more. “FANESCA,” it announced in bold block letters.
We hadn’t given thought to fanesca since we read an account by writer Calvin Trillin, some years earlier, of his quest for this Easter-season soup. After all, we had no plans to follow Trillin to the cobbled streets of Cuenca, or to anywhere else in Ecuador, anytime soon. But we remembered the name fanesca, and we stepped inside the restaurant for a restorative bowl. The sign in the window was true to its word: “Deliciosa!”
At the time (more than a decade ago), we imagined that this would be a rare point of overlap between Trillin’s adventures in the Andes and our own explorations in New York. As we discovered during Lenten seasons to follow, however, for a few days each year fanesca is widely available in the borough of Queens, especially in the neighborhoods of Corona, Jackson Heights and Elmhurst. (In fact, so many Ecuadorians live in Queens that it hosts an overseas polling station during national elections. Expats cast their ballots; food carts serve them hornado, llapingachos, morocho, and other fare from back home.)
Fanescas in Queens may be more diverse than finches in the Galapagos, especially considering all the versions of this hearty soup provisioned at specialty grocers and served in private homes. During Semana Santa, the solemn Holy Week that leads up to the Christian celebration of Easter, it seems that just about every Ecuadorian professional chef and self-taught cook prepares his or her own version.
The most traditional versions of this hearty soup feature salt cod, symbolic of Jesus, and 12 varieties of beans and grains, representing the 12 apostles; sliced hardboiled egg and a tuber or two are also common. Many of the ingredients grow only in South America and are imported just for the holiday season. The Ecuadorian market Casa America is a good place to see them in the raw, or to buy your own fanesca fixings should you feel especially ambitious.
If you’d rather let someone else do the cooking, you’ll find that most venues serve fanesca only for a day or two, but a few, including several food trucks, offer an expanded schedule. Among them is El Dorado Cafe, where on Good Fridays past we could never find a seat. In 2017, we were pleased to discover, El Dorado began serving fanesca in March, and will continue to serve it every day through Easter Sunday, April 16. In addition to assorted (and not-always-identifiable) legumes, the cafe’s version ($16.50) sported carrot, cabbage, bell pepper, and heart of palm, as well as several generous filleted slabs of salt cod and what seemed to be two entire hardboiled eggs, in slices. Figure in the side plate of white rice and the bowl of corn served two ways – as large-kerneled, toasted cancha, and as popcorn worthy of an art-house cinema – and this would be the main meal for most anyone’s day.
In researching this story we identified more than 20 venues that will serve fanesca in 2017. A dozen or so, grouped in two clusters, are identified under the “Locations” tab, along with their dates of service. You can hunt them down by name and address – but also keep your eyes peeled for those brightly colored signs. Who knows what else you’ll discover?