It’s a fair assumption that majority of Americans associate Day of the Dead with ofrendas and sugar skulls, two Mexican traditions that made a recent resurgence in pop culture following the release of 2017’s Coco. But when it comes to the rest of Latin America, however, the holiday isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience.
In Ecuador, city dwellers in Quito, Loja, Ambato, and beyond come together on Dia de los Difuntos – as Day of the Dead is commonly referred to in Ecuador – to enjoy guaguas de pan (“bread babies”) and colada morada (“purple drink”) with their families.
Guaguas de pan serves as a colorful, playful representation of loved ones who have died. Colada morada is the creation of the indigenous peoples who would source mora, a type of blackberry found in the Ecuadorian highlands, to create a beverage to take with them to visit their ancestors’ tombstones. Just as turkey is associated with Thanksgiving in the U.S., the food and beverage are synonymous with Dia de los Difuntos in Ecuador.
Cuenca’s Bakery, a family-run establishment in Chicago’s Irving Park, has been doing its part in promoting these two popular traditions during Ecuador’s Dia de los Difuntos. Since 2005, owner Julio Bonde and his nephew, Daniel Chiqui, have been selling guaguas de pan and colada morada on the special day – in addition to everyday Ecuadorian dishes like hornado (roasted pork) and seco de chivo (braised goat stew).
Dough, piped icing, guava jam and dulce de leche are just some of the ingredients needed to make these guaguas. Back home, everyone is encouraged to decorate their own however they like, whether that means plumping up their bread baby with sweet filling or skipping the saccharine center entirely. Piped icing is used to add colorful stripes and shapes onto the baked loaves, dressing up an otherwise plain canvas. Both versions are available at Cuenca’s.
“We bake about 2,000 guaguas de pan per week,” Chiqui tells me, adding that these bread babies are offered two to three weeks before Dia de los Difuntos due to high demand.
Colada morada, on the other hand, is sold at Cuenca’s Bakery the day of (November 2) and the day after. A non-alcoholic, smoothie-type beverage that’s served piping hot, the purple drink is a hearty mixture of purple corn flour, pineapple, berries, brown sugar, and an assortment of spices. It’s brewed for at least an hour, allowing ample time for the medley of flavors to truly cultivate in their pot.
Bonde and Chiqui both hail from Cuenca, a city in the southern part of Ecuador’s Andes mountains (which also serves as the business’s namesake), where they grew up making guaguas de pan and colada morada with their families every November. Chiqui aimed to carry on those same traditions after immigrating to Chicago in the mid-1980s.
Cuenca’s is a gem not only because it’s Chicago’s first Ecuadorian bakery, according to Chiqui, but because of its commitment to celebrating the country’s culture in a city that is home to only a handful of Ecuadorian establishments.
When I ask Chiqui how he feels about having a part in bringing Ecuador’s Dia de los Difuntos traditions stateside, he tells me gravely: “I am proud of what we have done here.”
Where to taste Ecuadorian Day of the Dead delicacies:
Cuenca’s Bakery – guaguas de pan and colada morada (4229 W Montrose Ave, Chicago, IL)
Adela's Café – guaguas de pan (94-01 37th Ave., Jackson Heights, NY)
Manolo's Bakery – guaguas de pan and colada morada (4405-C Central Ave, Charlotte, NC)
Pan del Cielo 2 – guaguas de pan (523 Ferry St., New Haven, CT)