Churros: a secret history

July 17, 2011 14:00 1 comment

If you’ve been on the streets of London lately you may have noticed the increasing prevalence of the humble churrería, previously the domain of Spain and Latin America alone.

Laura Cronk

In vans, trailers, cafes and on dessert menus, the churro has arrived.

Churros, tasty deep fried sticks of dough, sugar sprinkled and served with warm chocolate sauce for dipping, have long been the working man’s breakfast or after-party snack of choice in Spain, with churrerías often the first eateries to open in the morning, and the last to close at night.

They quickly gained popularity in Mexico and South America, and are finally seducing London with their sticky, oily charms.

The history of the churro is ancient and revered, lending the snack an almost mythical status. It begins not in Spain but in China, where Portuguese merchants first tasted youtiao, strips of golden fried salty pastry traditionally eaten for breakfast.

When the Portuguese recreated this delicacy in Iberia, adding sugar rather than salt and introducing the now-familiar starred shape of the strips, the churro was born.

In China, youtiao translates as ‘oil-fried devil’; the snack was original served in pairs, symbolising Song dynasty official Qin Hui and his wife, the ‘devils’ who brought about the demise of the respected general.

In Spain this folklore was lost, and the churro takes its name from the churra sheep, whose horns it is said to resemble.

It was Spanish shepherds who popularised the dish, working as they did in the isolated terrain of the mountains for weeks and months at a time, they did not have access to fresh bread and so used the youtiao idea to cook their own substitute using no more than flour, water, oil and an open fire.

Meanwhile, in Spanish towns, an exchange occurred which transformed the snack from shepherd’s fare to a royal delicacy.

While the conquistadors took churros to South America, they brought back chocolate and plentiful sugar, turning dull dough sticks into a sweet sensation.

Once in South America, the churro continued to evolve from a plain, thin stick to a more rotund stuffed speciality, varying according to region.

While the Brazilians prefer a chocolate filling, the Cubans like their churros with Guava stuffing, Mexicans with dulce de leche or vanilla. In Uruguay, a savoury combination arose: cheese stuffed churros, and indeed, in South Eastern Spain they are still eaten with salt rather than sugar, closer relatives of the original youtiao. Mexican churros are said to act as the bridge between dessert and savoury churros as salt is added to the dough before kneading, while the filling is tooth-achingly sweet.

If you’re suddenly feeling peckish, there are now ample opportunities to satisfy a churros craving in London. From the Churros Bros café in Ealing, Churros London in the Brunswick Centre, and Camino by King Cross, to the Churros Garcia van which can be found at Portobello Road Market as well as serving events around London, Churros lovers can rejoice: there’s no longer any shortage of the sweet snack in this city.

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