They are called guaguas de pan, or wawas, or simply tantawawas and, in Ecuador, there is no more emblematic custom for the día de los difuntos (day of the deceased).
On November 2nd of every year, the day of the dead is celebrated, a date of singular importance in the calendar of popular festivities of Ecuador, which are characterized by a mixture of traditions and ancestral customs.
The day of the dead is a date when people remember those who have died and are in purgatory, according to the beliefs of the Catholic Church. Note that the majority of the Ecuadorian population practices the Catholic religion.
According to this belief, those who live must pray for the souls of those who are dead to free them from Purgatory and allow them to continue their path to heaven. In Ecuador, families go to the cemetery to visit relatives and bring prayers, flowers and food for the dead. They symbolically “share” food with the dead by eating near the graves, a ritual completed with the belief that death is a simple step towards another life, similar to this one.
According to indigenous Ecuadorian beliefs, men do not die but move on to another life, and communication between the dead and the living is possible. Instruments that facilitate this communication include guaguas de pan and colada morada, a purple drink made from many fruits and spices, a drink that represents the fusion of indigenous and Catholic beliefs. In Catholic beliefs, the color purple is a symbol of death and mourning.
Guagua in Quechua means “little child”, “infant” or “baby”, which is the traditional representation of these brioche figurines.
But what does guagua de pan have to do with the dead? There are several hypotheses.
Some sources indicate that in the nineteenth century, the day of a person’s death, the Ecuadorian Indians nailed a doll to the ground with a pointed object to indicate his burial and that at the same time, this bread was used as food for the deceased person in the afterlife.
Other sources say that guaguas are children’s representations, commemorating the biblical episode in which Herod murdered newborns who were trying to kill Jesus.
Some believe that guaguas are born to replace the Indian tradition of mummification.
Others think that the shape of the baby is based on the indigenous belief that when a person dies, he finds the innocence of a baby.
Now let’s talk about the traditional cuisine of Ecuador, which is very varied. Although it is a small country, Ecuador features several geological and climatic typologies, each of which has culinary traditions that are mainly related to territorial productions.
In Ecuador, there are 4 main regions: the coast, the Sierra, the east of the country and finally the island region, the Galapagos. Each of these regions has its customs and traditions.
Typical ingredients include rice, eggs, potatoes and the region’s 500 varieties, quinoa, maize, plantain, avocado, beef and pork. Because Ecuador has a long coastline, there are also many seafood products.
Among the most popular dishes are the famous ceviche, fritada de la Sierra, chiftes, bolon verde, and patacones, all three, made with plantain, as well as empanadas with various filling ranging from meat to cheese (venezo) or the pan of yuca, a delicious cassava bread.
A very popular dish in Ecuador is cuy that is nothing else than… Guinea pig, a giant South American breed. Yes, we are talking about the rodent mammal! An expensive dish, that is also consumed in the Andes, Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia whose flesh is supposedly succulent, and that has a symbolic value for the Indians. Native healers diagnose by reading through the insides of this small animal after passing it over the body of a sick person.
Ecuadorians are used to eating cuy for special occasions, festive meals and weddings, and keeping a little guinea pig skull bone, dipping it in a glass of water and swallowing it. This practice is supposed to give you good health!
The tropical zone of Ecuador is very rich in fruits like passion fruit, pineapple, mangoes, naranjilla, babako, and many others.
Now, let’s go back to the guaguas of pan and especially to the patience that you are going to need to be prepared with in order to shape them but also and especially to decorate them. I urge you to begin the preparation of this recipe with a totally zen mood.
Regarding the shape of the guaguas, since there is no guaguas cookie cutter, I recommend that you make a template and cut your guaguas with the help of the tip of a knife all around the template.
As for icing, if you are not friends with the piping bag, the syringe, or with food coloring, then think about getting icing tubes (or decorating pens) of various colors, that you can easily find in supermarkets nowadays.
In any case, with no icing and straight out of the oven, those guaguas de pan are indeed delicious!
- 8 cups all-purpose flour
- 2½ tablespoons active dry yeast
- 1 cup milk (warm)
- ¾ cup sugar
- 8 whole eggs
- 3 egg yolks (to brush)
- 1 cup unsalted butter (at room temperature)
- 3 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 10 oz. icing sugar
- 5 tablespoons water (cold)
- Food coloring
In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the milk and add 1 cup flour. Mix well, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside for 1 hour at room temperature, away from drafts.
Mix all the ingredients of the brioche except the butter.
Thoroughly knead the dough with the stand mixer or by hand, then add the butter little by little and knead until you obtain a dough that pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
Do not hesitate to add a little flour gradually if the dough is too sticky.
Cut the dough into the shape of guaguas de pan. To do this, make a template in a cardboard sheet placed on the dough, and cut it with a small sharp knife.
Renew the operation until the dough is used up.
Place the guaguas de pan, well spaced, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Let it rise again for 30 minutes.
Brush with the beaten egg yolks.
Bake in an oven preheated at 350 F for about 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown but not too dark.
Allow to cool completely before proceeding with the decoration.
Mix the icing sugar and water to obtain a homogeneous paste.
The water must be incorporated little by little until a paste with the consistency of glue is obtained.
Divide the preparation into as many parts as desired colors. Add select coloring to each preparation. If the food coloring is liquid, then rectify by adding a little icing sugar if necessary.
Use a syringe, a decoration pen or a small freezer bag with the tip cut to decorate the buns.
Place the guaguas in a cool place and let the icing dry completely before handling.