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Women prepare bags of churros for customers in Pamplona, Spain. The origins of the fried dough delicacy is still a source of much argument. Photo: Getty Images

Did churros, beloved in Spain and Portugal, come from China, where fried dough sticks have been eaten for centuries?

  • It’s been suggested churros came from China via Portuguese traders in the 1500s – and also that the Portuguese took churros with them to China
  • However, most scholars say churros and Chinese fried dough sticks are more likely to be distant cousins with a common ancestor, the Arabic zulabiya

Fried dough is almost ubiquitous. Different cultures put their own spin on it, but it’s popular because it’s stomach-filling, delicious and cheap to make.

In Spain and Portugal, people munch on churros – long, golden-brown knots, curls or strips of deep-fried dough, which they dip in chocolate. In China there’s something similar – fried dough sticks called youtiao, which can be eaten with congee or sandwiched in flaky pan-fried bread.

Are they related, and if so to what extent? It’s been suggested that churros came from China via the first Portuguese visitors to its shores in the 1500s. But many food scholars think this is a myth, citing recipes in Andalusian cookbooks that predate the first contact between Portuguese and Chinese, which culminated in the establishment of Macau, a Portuguese enclave on Chinese soil, in 1557. Other scholars believe that youtiao and churros are indeed distant cousins, with one likely common progenitor: the Islamic zulabiya.

Spanish chef Jose Antonio Navarro Cortes, who worked for years in Hong Kong at La Paloma restaurant and is now living in Mula, in Spain’s Murcia region, believes that churros have been influenced by China.

Deep-fried dough sticks, or youtiao, are a famous traditional snack in China. Photo: Shutterstock

“The Portuguese likely brought the concept to Spain and through the centuries we mastered the technique to make them. In some parts of Mexico they say they are the creators of them, but I think we mastered a recipe originating in China. While living in Hong Kong I’ve seen the Chinese ‘churros’ and basically it is the same concept but I think older,” says Navarro, who now works with the UK-based Iberica Restaurants.

“We did change some of the ingredients in the dough to make it tastier and also, in some places, the shape to make them crispier so they look better and don’t explode. The rest – sugar, chocolate – came with the time to transform them from something that was a kind of poor people food into a sweet well known around the world.”

A recipe for churros: easy to make, dangerously easy to eat

Other – more nationalistic – Spanish say churros were first made by Spanish farmers tending to churra – a breed of sheep with ridged horns – hence the name and shape of the pastry.

Miranda Brown, professor of Chinese studies in the department of Asian languages and cultures at the University of Michigan, in the US, scoffs at the idea that churros come from China.

“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 come from foreign lands, nor are there any of the usual smoking guns such as loan words suggesting a historical instance of pastry lifting.”

Youtiao can be eaten with congee or sandwiched in flaky pan-fried bread. Photo: Getty Images

She says the theory fails to take into account the role of the Islamic world in spreading the real progenitor of churros, first to China and other parts of Asia, and only much later to the Iberian Peninsula via the Moors.

In fact, similar-looking fritters are still consumed throughout North Africa, says Brown, and there’s also a variant of another popular treat in Algeria called the banana zlabia (or zlabiat), which is a hot-water dough piped into hot oil, then dunked in syrup.

In old Spanish cookbooks, the ancestors of churros appear as zulâbiyya, says Maria Paz Moreno, professor of Spanish language and culture at the University of Cincinnati, in the US, and the author of many cookbooks on Spain’s gastronomic traditions.

Yau ja gwai: you know, Jamie Oliver's 'doughnuts in congee'

“You have a recipe for a fried dough with flour and water, fried in oil and drizzled with honey, that can be found in an anonymous manuscript from Al-Andalus [a Muslim-ruled area of the Iberian Peninsula] which would indicate an Arabic-Andalusian origin, from the 13th century.

“So, yes, churros are possibly a food of Arabic heritage, since there are similar desserts that still exist in Iran and Syria.”

The Moors reigned over parts of modern-day Spain, Portugal and southern France from the 8th century, so churros became a common legacy, Moreno adds.

When the [Portuguese] introduced churros [in China], this was definitely a meeting between cousins, many times removed
Sean Chen, author of Recipes from the Garden of Contentment

Once zulabiya started spreading, they did so quickly along the Silk Road. By the thirteenth century, the Persian treat had been popular for hundreds of years throughout the Islamic world, says Brown, and there is a version of it today in India called jalebi – the loan of the word here is crystal clear.

But the Silk Road further complicates the picture, blurring the boundaries of food origins, argues Gene Anderson, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, and a food and nutrition expert who has written widely on China.

If the Silk Road legacy makes it tough to identify who invented what first, it’s also hard to totally rule out any Chinese-Portuguese affair in the churro’s origins, especially since fritters are such a spontaneous creation.

“I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody knows. Anything is possible,” says Anderson. “The trouble is that fried dough strips and frybread [fried flat dough circles] are almost impossible not to invent, if you have dough and oil. With them, you have a super cheap, super convenient, super filling snack. They are thus pretty widespread.”

Gene Anderson is a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California in the US. Photo: Gene Anderson
A cook fries jalebi in Uttar Pradesh, India. Photo: Getty Images

A middle-way theory – culinary cross-contamination and influences – sounds realistic, says Anderson. It is likely that the Portuguese were influenced by and picked up Chinese frying techniques and potentially some fritter shapes to hone their own churros, and that when they brought churros with them to China (alongside other foodstuffs), they might have also passed on some tips to the Chinese.

There’s one particular Spanish churro-like fritter called porra, which is identical to youtiao: it’s thicker than churros and without their typical star-ridged pattern.

Youtiao look like two conjoined dough sticks and are called yau jah gwai in Cantonese, which translates to “oil-fried devils”. Anderson explains that they get this name because people think of them in connection with Qin Hui, the evil politician who betrayed the great general Yue Fei in the late Song dynasty and may have lost China to the Mongols.

“He is cordially hated in China, so they think of him and his wife – who supposedly schemed with him – when they split the youtiao and throw it into boiling oil.” This tale would make modern-day youtiao roughly 900 years old, but it is likely an evolution of a much earlier fritter.

In his extensive culinary research, Sean Chen, author of Recipes from the Garden of Contentment, the first bilingual (Chinese and English) edition of Qing dynasty gastronomy book Suiyuan Shidan (1792), hunted down old Chinese recipes to proved that Islamic fritters first appeared in China thanks to Muslim traders two centuries before they reached Spain with the Moors.

Maria Paz Moreno is professor of Spanish language and culture at the University of Cincinnati. Photo: Maria Paz Moreno
Youtiao or cakwe is also a traditional breakfast snack in Indonesia. Photo: Getty Images

“It is in the Qimin Yaoshu, a 6th century agricultural text, which described an exceptionally crisp thin looped-shaped pastry, fried in either tallow or butter and doused in honey or jujube molasses.”

Chen, a Canadian scientist who develops algorithms for computer-assisted micro- neurosurgery and is obsessed with Chinese food history, found another 1200s recipe for sugary “little pressed short-pastries” while working on his next book, Madame Wu’s Manual on Cuisine.

“This pastry is made with the same bean starch and wheat flour mix as a dough rather than a slurry, but actually has the similar ridged pattern we see in the Spanish churros and also served in a similar fashion. The recipe itself says that after frying the pastries you ‘ladle them out with a perforated spoon, and while hot, sprinkle with white granulated sugar that has been finely ground, then toss’.”

After being fried up, jalebis are dumped into a sugar syrup in Mumbai, India. Photo: Getty Images

According to Chen, Islamic fried dough pastries similar to jalebi were introduced quite early by the Muslim and Turkic Uygur people in Central Asia and were already quite prevalent in China long before the Iberians introduced churros. Jalebi evolved over time, and took on indigenous Chinese traits.

“If we look at them through the lens of a ‘culinary grammar’ it’s hard to push aside youtiao as not being even somewhat related to this system of related recipes.”

Another fried pastry tied to this Muslim doughnut tradition is sanzi dough twists, which are made throughout China but especially by the Uygurs, says Brown, with some versions resembling Indian jalebi as they are formed in a lattice.

Chen is open to some kind of “osmosis” theory that links youtiao and churros.

Churros are sold at a food stall in Santa Barbara, California. Photo: Getty Images
Sean Chen is the author of Recipes from the Garden of Contentment. Photo: Sean Chen

“Whether the Portuguese were influenced by, or influenced, the frying techniques or dough shapes in China is not known [by me], but when they introduced churros, this was definitely a meeting between cousins, many times removed,” he says.

The likely cross-fertilisation of food creations, and culinary overlapping, reveal the extent of the movement of people, goods and ideas between the Middle East, central Asia and East Asia even back then, says Chen. And that’s a much more fascinating story then establishing food copyright or genesis.

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