Of all the foods that transform into something sublime after submersion in hot oil, dough, I humbly submit, reigns supreme. At the very least it wins the dramatic-metamorphosis category. Let’s consider the evidence. You take two of the dullest ingredients in the history of cuisine – flour and water – and mix them together. The result is a pale, flabby, sticky, utterly unappetizing blob. But once it plunges into a vat of shimmering-hot oil and slowly rises back to the top, bobbing in a fury of bubbles and steam, the princess has kissed the frog and it becomes a golden, crispy, chewy thing of deliciousness. A churro.
It becomes a golden, crispy, chewy thing of deliciousness
Or a fritter, cruller, doughnut, beignet, youtiao, elephant’s ear, funnel cake, buñuelo; the list is longer than we have time for. The point is, fried dough comes as close as anything else to having universal appeal. It’s simple logic. Anything shallow-fried is good, so therefore anything deep-fried must be even better. Dough is the best example of this truth.
The churro’s star in particular has been shining bright lately. During the coronavirus lockdown, it has been one of the most searched for food indulgences of any kind. Why the churro? Why not, say, one of the hundreds of other kinds of fried dough recipes from around the world?
My theory is that the key to the churro’s popularity is its shape. The churro is to dough what the French fry is to potatoes. Creamy, but with an emphasis on crunchy, in the right proportions. An authentic Spanish churro is thin and needs to be piped through a star-shaped funnel tip. That way, the ridges get crispier than the rest, and the full gamut between crunch and chew can be appreciated by the mindful. The shape also has other things to recommend it. A doughnut bumps into your cheeks but a churro is easier to eat, which may explain in part why they’re so popular as a walk-around treat at fairs and amusement parks.
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Of course, merit alone is no guarantee of fame. A sprinkling of pixie dust goes a long way, too. On 5 April, Disney published the recipe for the churros they sell at their parks and a grateful, churro-deprived world rejoiced. Food bloggers posted their attempts at recreating Disney’s “Churro Bites”, short pieces of churros that have been pre-bitten, if you will, which saves you the hard work (some would say pleasure) of biting into a churro yourself. Nevertheless, the internet swooned and churros quickly became one of the highest-ranked recipe searches on Google.
But, there’s just one thing. It’s not a churro. It’s one thing to stray from the traditional topping of plain sugar (churros have suffered the indignity of being covered in everything from sparkly candy to maple syrup and bacon to Roquefort to mole sauce). But Disney has gone a step further and tampered with the very soul of the churro, the basic flour-and-water dough. Its recipe calls for the addition of both butter and eggs, which is more like a churro-shaped, cake-like thing. Delicious, perhaps. But a churro? Absolutely not.
Or, on the other hand, maybe. Mandy Lee is the author of the cookbook The Art of Escapism Cooking, and is no stranger to fried dough of all kinds. Known for her personal and irreverent style, not to mention flavour-packed dishes, Lee has a thing or two to say about the sanctity of recipes.
“Every food we eat nowadays is fusion. It’s a dirty word because people like to eat ‘authentic’, whatever that means,” she said. “But I don’t feel like there’s anything truly authentic. There’s always a progression. People make things their own.”
Most of the time, anyway. Lee lives in Hong Kong but on a trip to Madrid, she saw for the first time a porra, the plumper cousin of the churro, which differs only in that the recipe includes baking powder to create a puffed, airy texture.
“It was really surprising. Porras are almost exactly the same as youtiao,” she said, referring to a popular breakfast fritter in China, usually dipped in soya milk or rice congee. “It’s really, really close. It’s strange because normally when foods get adopted by different cultures, they undergo more of a change but the porra is 95% a youtiao.”
Is it a case of coevolution? Or did the humble but venerated churro, the pride of Spain’s contribution to world pastries, evolve from a Chinese youtiao? Lee is not suggesting that, but the similarity has not stopped others from doing so. Maybe Portuguese sailors brought it back from China to the Iberian Peninsula? Or do you believe the Spanish, who say shepherds invented it out of a need to make some simple, filling food while roaming the mountains where they couldn’t bake bread? Where was the churro born?
There’s likely a very simple answer to that. It was in Spain, Portugal or China, depending on whether you ask someone from Spain, Portugal or China. No doubt I’m leaving out a dozen countries with persuasive arguments when looked at from the inside, but you get the idea. One thing’s for sure, though. The quickest way to get into an argument over the origin of a food is to claim it as your own.
“People love being possessive about food,” says food historian Michael Krondl, the author of The Donut: History, Recipes, and Lore from Boston to Berlin. “We want to take ownership of it. It’s a marker of identity the same way as language is.” But pinpointing exactly where and when a recipe was created is almost impossible, particularly one that’s been around for centuries.
“Someone tells a story and it goes into an echo chamber in the community,” said Krondl. “Then someone writes it down and everyone points to that and says it’s the truth. It gets repeated and repeated until someone says, well, all the sources say… But they’re all just repeating one guy.”
Krondl says historians should be very modest about making pronouncements but does not shy away from making at least one himself. “Did the Spanish get the idea for fritters from China? No. That’s laughable.” Because churros are made by pressing the dough through something that makes a shape, they belong to a group of fried food that someone unfortunately decided to call syringe fritters. Syringe fritters were popular all over Europe in the 16th Century. But fried dough in Spain is a lot older than that. Recipes from Moorish Spain date from the 12th Century, and other Arabic sources date back to the 8th and 9th Centuries, leading some to credit the Arabs for introducing it to what was then not even known as Spain.
But we’re not done yet. “In some ways,” said Kondl, “today’s churro is not that different from a recipe for a flour and water fritter that you find in Apicius, a Roman cookbook dating from the 1st Century AD. And there are recipes from the Ancient Greeks but it’s probably even older than that. In the Mediterranean basin it’s basically been around forever.”
While churros have been eaten in Spain for centuries, the word itself, most likely a reference to the curly horns of the Churra sheep, doesn’t appear in written sources until the late 19th Century. That’s also when Madrid’s famous Chocolatería San Ginés opened and started serving churros and mugs of thick, dark chocolate. On a normal, non-quarantine day, Daniel Real, the master churrero (churro maker) at San Ginés, says they can go through 80,000 to 90,000 churros a day. It helps that they’re normally open 24 hours, but still, that’s a lot of, ahem, dough. Last year, nearly two million people stopped by for a stack of churros and chocolate.
Since it was the Spanish who introduced chocolate to Europe after conquering the Aztecs in 1519, it’s perhaps fitting that chocolate is often enjoyed in Spain as a drink, much as the Aztecs did. In wealthy, 16th-Century Spain, it quickly became a sensation. Thick, dark and on the bitter side, it was often drunk on its own. We don’t know who was first to dip a churro into chocolate but come on. It doesn’t take a genius.
While churros and chocolate is especially popular in Madrid, this sainted combination is also common in other parts of the country as well as around the world, particularly in countries once ruled by Spain. But whereas you always find churros in a chocolatería (chocolate shop), you don’t always find chocolate in a churrería (churro stall). Spain is famous for its innumerable fairs and fiestas throughout the year, and a churro stall is practically required by law, or at least by common sense. Cheap, filling and delicious with or without a sprinkling of sugar, they have always been a favourite féria food. Eventually, some of these mobile churro carts set up real shops, churrerías, so people could get their fill all year long.
Chocolaterías are usually fancy places. Churrerías are usually not, but oftentimes, that’s where you get the best ones.
Charo Salguero Venegas runs a tiny churrería out of a window beside the entrance to the market in El Puerto de Santa María in south-western Spain. She belongs to the camp that says churros should be enjoyed on their own, no chocolate, gracias. “Those aren’t churros anymore, that’s a dessert! I don’t like those silly frills, we make churros al natural,” she said.
Salguero Venegas’ stall is decorated with photos of her life in churros. Her father, mother, uncles and grandfather sold churros but Salguero Venegas has been at it longer than any of them. Now 77, she’s been making and selling churros in this plaza for 65 years. Her customers have included King Juan Carlos, but Salguero Venegas is a woman of the people. “Even children I don’t know call me Abuela Charo,” she said. To recognise her contribution to the community and her pioneering role as a working woman, the town recently installed a plaque in her honour.
Salguero Venegas is warm and chatty and exuberant, sometimes breaking into song, always keeping those in the long queue for churros smiling and laughing. Her churros are renowned, but one wonders whether her customers come here as much for her as for her churros.
But that’s always been part of the churro’s charm, the association with fun, fairgrounds, theme parks, celebrations and just generally having a good time with friends and family. When you think about it, is it really any wonder they’re so popular right now?
This is a recipe for churros – not for disaster – so first things first, take extreme caution when deep-frying.
This is as simple as it gets. One cup of water to one cup of flour, with a pinch of salt. Rolando Celi, who has been making churros at Madrid’s Chocolatería San Ginés since 1981, said that the most important thing is that the oil is hot, and the flour is dry. Isn’t all flour dry? I asked. He said that while it feels dry, there can be a lot of humidity in it. If you live in a humid place, you might want to consider drying out the flour in the oven for half an hour or so at a low temperature. That way, says Celi, the churros will absorb less oil.
Speaking of oil, most people use straight vegetable oil, but celebrity chef Karlos Arguiñano prefers olive oil. Not extra virgin, just the regular refined stuff. As for the kind of flour, the most common is all-purpose. High-gluten, extra-fine flour is good for porras, but for churros, stick to all-purpose.
As for special equipment, many use a churro gun that looks like something you might use to caulk tiles in your bathroom. If you don’t have that, you can use a pastry bag with an open-star tip. Numbers vary according to manufacturer, but you want a churro to be about 2cm wide. Any thinner and the centre will dry out too much.
1 cup water
1 cup flour
Pinch of salt
Add a pinch of salt to one cup of water and bring to a boil. Just before it boils, add one cup of flour all at once and stir enthusiastically with a wooden spoon. Take off the heat. Keep stirring until the dough comes away from the sides. Add a little flour if too sticky, then form into a ball and set aside for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring the oil to 185°C. You can either squeeze out the churros onto a lightly floured surface before frying or place them right into the hot oil, snipping them with scissors as you go. Churros will float, but they need to be turned halfway through frying.
Fry until golden brown. Remove from oil and sprinkle with table sugar while still hot.
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