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Calvin Trillin is a fanesca fanatic. By tradition, this stew incorporates 12 types of beans—one for each of the Christian apostles—into a stock made from salt cod, rendering the dish briny beneath its earthy bean component. Served all over Ecuador during Holy Week (the seven days preceding Easter), the thick potage constitutes a kind of culinary penance. “Does each apostle have his own bean?” I asked Trillin. “Not sure, but it’s not a bad idea,” was his reply. A steaming bowl of fanesca often leads to such theological speculation. Trillin fell in love with fanesca during a trip to Ecuador he made to investigate another local delicacy, ceviche. I myself enjoyed a bowl of the stuff while hiking around Otavalo in the northern highlands, where I stayed at an eco-lodge that looked out across a valley to a pair of dormant volcanoes. That valley was carpeted with bean plants.
We wanted to find a local source for fanesca, and a little Web research yielded a place in Sunnyside that served it. Guagua Pichincha is named after another volcano a few kilometers south of the Ecuadoran capital of Quito, which last destroyed the city in 1660. The dining room is characterized by two neat rows of tables, a modest number of plastic flowers, many identical round mirrors, and a loud jukebox that the waitress turns on when you arrive. There’s no stopping her. We arrived at the café a few days before Easter in a frigid drizzle, and were delighted to see a sign advertising fanesca in the window. When we got inside, though, it turned out that the soup was only being served on Fridays during the 40 days of Lent. We sat down anyway to a splendid meal that included encebollado mixto (“mix with onions,” $12.50), a large bowl of fish soup that was mainly shrimp and minced swordfish in a broth that, as the name implies, contained plenty of onions. We also ate some fine llapingachos ($2 each)—patties of potatoes and cheese colored a lurid shade of orange —and a bandera equitoriana ($14.50), twin stews of beef tripe and goat separated by a mound of white rice, intended to graphically represent the national flag. Alongside came a side of tart and soupy shrimp ceviche. Don’t forget to ask for the chunky homemade hot sauce known as aji (pronounced “Ah- hee“), which is supposed to be the sound of your shrieking when you eat some of it.
I returned to Guagua Pichincha alone on Good Friday to sample the fanesca, and this time I was not disappointed. The room was filled with snowy-haired ladies and gentlemen, some in wheelchairs, all slurping the Lenten soup ($10). My bowl of it brimmed with brown broth, and a split boiled egg floated on top, heaped with chopped cilantro. As I dredged in the complex and incredibly toothsome stew, I inventoried the ingredients: medium red beans and smaller pink ones, corn kernels of two sizes, green peas, giant fava beans with a black stripe along one edge, pine nuts, and potato-like tubers called mollocos, the size of a baby’s little finger. “The Ecuadorans have a very broad definition of bean,” Trillin had noted.
I thought I saw the face of Jesus on one of the tiny mollocos. But rather than scare the other customers, I shut up and swallowed it.