Did Churros Come from China? A Historian's Refutation of the News (ASIAN 258)
Updated: Feb 24, 2022
A few months ago, I awoke to find it there. On my Facebook feed. “Hey Conejita! Thought of you when I saw this.” I groaned. It was the same darn story, “The Secret History of Churros” from 2011, but by another writer and with a slightly different name, “How Spanish Chefs Stole Chinese Dough and Turned Churros into a Classic Dessert.”
In a nutshell, the claim: Churros are from China.
Or, to quote one of the earliest versions, “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.”
It's an intriguing theory (sigh). But there are more problems with it than its claims of historical connection. The theory exposes larger issues about how we write those histories: namely, who we feature in our tales of culinary exchange and who we leave out.
Since the theory is now ubiquitous, let’s give it a hearing. For the sake of convenience, I’ll refer to it as Asian Doughnut Theory no. 1 (you’ll review Asian Doughnut Theory no. 2 in discussion sections on Friday).
To be sure, Asian Doughnut Theory no. 1 is right about at least one thing. There is a family resemblance between youtiao and churros. Both are long doughs that end up deep-fried into golden goodness. Both are best when dipped. In the case of youtiao, it nowadays finds a home in soy milk (a few hundred years ago, that would have been drinkable yogurt). In the case of churros, you first coat the fritter in cinnamon sugar, then dunk it in chocolate.
So let’s pretend that the family resemblance points to an actual genealogical tie, as opposed to a spurious connection. Picture Zooey Deschanel and Katie Perry. To me, they look identical. But should we infer on the basis of their uncanny physical resemblance that they are directly related?
To test the Asian Doughnut Theory, we’ll need to flesh out some dates. Presumably, that transfer of doughnut-making technology happened sometime after the end of the fifteenth century.
Why start looking after 1500? It was only then that the Portuguese, who became Europe’s finest navigators, accessed the Indian Ocean Trade Route.
The Portuguese were latecomers to the game. By the time they made their way to Asia, that trade route had been operational for more than a millennium. Part of the challenge had been the seas themselves. Those monsoon patterns require considerable skill to manage and can be treacherous. Also, if you leave from Europe and want to bypass the Middle East, you must take the long route and navigate around the tip of Africa.
Needless to say, the Portuguese, like the Spanish, were eager to pull off these feats. The Portuguese wanted “in” with the Spice Trade. As Paul Freedman reveals in Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (2008), this was not because the Europeans needed to preserve their rotting, unrefrigerated meat. Spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves are absolutely useless for this purpose. It was simply for the taste — and the prestige.
The sixteenth century was the Portuguese moment. While the Portuguese didn’t manage to completely control the Indian Ocean Trade Route, they did get a foothold in Asia. They captured Goa in Southern India by 1510, then took over Malacca the next year. At that point, the Portuguese established a presence in Siam, before heading due north: to the Southern Japanese port city of Nagasaki in 1543 and then leased Macau off the coast of China in 1557.
According to the Asian Doughnut Theory, Portuguese merchants must have learned how to prepare youtiao from the Chinese and brought the techniques back to the Iberian peninsula. From there, the techniques for making doughnuts presumably evolved -- and significantly. Cooks began preparing the dough by adding boiling water to make something similar to a choux. Then they started piping the dough out of something like a pastry bag into hot oil. After the fritters were done, they coated them in spiced sugar. In this cloying, mutated form, the fritter boarded ships headed to the Americas, much of which was then either a Spanish or Portuguese colony. A Mexican favorite was born!
Looking at the facts, you can see why the Asian Doughnut Theory has enjoyed staying power. It’s a cool story, gels with historical events, and accounts for the apparent resemblance between youtiao and churros.
But Asian Doughnut Theory no. 1 falls short of making a persuasive case on several fronts. For starters, no one has ever coughed up a shred of textual support. I have yet to see some sixteenth or seventeenth-century European quoted as claiming that churros “came from alien lands.” Nor are there any of the usual smoking guns. Journalists have yet to point to any loan words that suggest a historical instance of pastry lifting.
More troubling, Asian Doughnut Theory No. 1 has ignored a more obvious source of the churros: a handy Islamic predecessor. Today, there are some similar-looking fritters, still consumed throughout North Africa. One of them goes by khringo. It’s also made in coiled rings, just like it is today in Southern Spain, where churros are called a bunch of things including: Calentitos de rueda or calentitos de papas.
More tellingly still, there’s also a variant of another popular treat in Algeria called the banana zlabia (or zlabiat). Some versions have eggs; others don’t. But the main thing is this. It’s a hot-water dough. It’s also piped and then deep fried, then dunked in something syrupy.
Zlabia banane (from hotwater dough to deep frying to post syrup glazing; Feb 16, 2021)
It’s clear that some version of zlabia has been around on the Iberian peninsula for centuries. The eminent scholar Charles Perry recently released his translation of a cookbook from thirteenth-century Andalusia (Southern Spain). That cookbook predates European exploration by hundreds of years. The cookbook also dates to a time when Southern Spain was under the rule of Muslim North Africans. So it makes sense that it was written in Arabic. The book also contains a recipe for a fritter called Zulâbiyya — a Persian treat that had been popular throughout the Islamic world by the thirteenth century for hundreds of years. This was also a treat that had legs. There’s a version of it today in India; it goes by jalebi.
The process conveyed in the thirteenth-century cookbook is very close to the modern churros and to Algerian zlabia (zlabia is the North African rendering of zulabia). There’s piping and deep frying. But there *is* one difference: the thirteenth-century Spanish version did not involve a hot water dough. I don’t think this breaks the theory, however. There have always been many versions of zulabia, including a tenth-century one from Baghdad made with hot water dough. Judging from the way banana zlabia are still made, those versions clearly found their way first to North Africa and presumably on to Spain.
Besides, the legacies of Muslim rule in Iberian cuisine survive until this day — not only in Spain and Portugal, but in former Iberian colonies. You not only see it with the churros, but also in sopa de fideos, rice pilaf like the paella, deep-fried fritters, and a slew of confections like mazapanes. Fish-and-chips is also a legacy of that era. Historians believe that it was brought to England by Spanish Jews, who had lived in Andalusia before the Inquisition. If you’re curious, check out the recipe for Munashshâ, a Dish Made with Starch.
Souvenirs of Islamic Rule in Southern Spain (Cordoba, Seville, Granada, Dec 2014)
I tell this story *not* to discourage journalists from doing food history. At the end of the day, I don’t mind that they speculate or come up with wild theories. We historians also speculate, in our mealy-mouthed way.
Instead, I relate this history to make two bigger points.
Beware of what you find on the Internet!
Food journalism often makes larger assumptions about culinary flows. I see in the Asian Doughnut Theory residual traces of Eurocentrism. I know that sounds weird, since this theory challenges the presumed European roots of churros.
While the Asian Doughnut Theory is purportedly a story of global connection, it is still one starring Western Europeans: Western European navigators who braved unknown waters to explore the far reaches of the earth and bring back culinary delights of the East; and Western Europeans who are the sole point of connection, the vanguards of international trade and globalization. Not surprisingly, this narrative has led some to affirm European priority. The latest BBC version of the story insists that the churros is descended from Classical Greek pastry.
To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with talking about European actors or Classical Greek precedents. Sixteenth-century Portuguese did have a huge effect on Asian eating. We’ll see this, in fact, next week. For now, just remember the egg custard tart!
Macau (Nov 2017) and Egg Custard Tarts (Jan 2011)
But it’s one thing to talk about European culinary influence and another to overlook everyone else. Long before Europeans headed East (or West) in search of spices, Malays, Indians, Near Easterners, Africans, and East Asians transported faiths, cooking styles, and spices across vast expanses of space through the Indian Ocean Trade Route and Silk Road.
To me, the cinnamon sugar in the churros should have been a tip off that there was Islamic influence. But these premodern trade routes did more than move aromatics. Foods like dumplings, biryani, samosa, flat bread, and zulabia are reminders of those deep historical connections. It behooves us to be mindful of those non-European explorers and traders. We must remain on the lookout for their traces in our food. In many cases, those traces are often right under our noses.
Empanadas made with filo (Seville, Dec 2014)
Sources (not hyperlinked)
Gary Paul Nabhan, Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey (California, 2014).
Charles Perry, Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook (New York University Press, 2017).
Randy Schwartz, "Luqmat al-Qadi: The Morsel that Went to the Ends of the Earth," Repast 2009.