The fascinating history of churros through the centuries, including its origins in Spain, Portugal, China and Egypt.
I’ve always loved finding out more about the history of different foods like festive candy canes and the history of churros is a truly fascinating one!
I was lucky enough to eat my first churros in an authentic cafe in Ferrol in northern Spain, where my mother in law originally comes from.
She would always meet her friends in the same cafe called ‘La Bola de Oro’ on Rua Maria when she was growing up. It was lovely to see her greeting her friend, who just walked in, not even realising that we were in the town! The friend came in for a coffee every morning which is all my mother in law remembered as her friend’s phone and address changed over the years.
The ‘La Bola de Oro’ cafe has been around for a long time and is famous for its churros. The churros are served with a large pot of thick chocolate sauce and the churros are freshly made and lightly dusted with sugar and cinnamon. They tasted so good and it was great to have them in such a great setting!
Since then I’ve tasted some great churros around the country and their history has always intrigued me, especially once I found out that it’s originally a breakfast food!
So, if you are as curious as me to find out more about this Spanish treat, let’s find out more about churros.
The origins of churros
There is more than one story that tells the origins of churros, but they all go back to the 16th century.
It’s difficult to know which story is the right one now, but I suspect that like with many other foods, there are similar types of recipes (of a fried bread type of dough) in many countries – not just Spain, Portugal or China.
It’s very likely that the recipes have developed simultaneously in different variations.
The different origins stories
One story is about Spanish shepherds, who were travelling high in the mountains with their sheep and invented churros as a snack that was easy to make in a frying pan over the campfire. They named their new pastry ‘churros’ because it reminded them of the shape of the horns of a type of sheep called Navajo Churro.
At that point this was very likely a basic recipe with just water, flour and salt and would taste more like a breadstick. I doubt, that the shepherds had oil or lard to spare to create a ‘deep fryer’ effect, so I’m guessing that the amount of oil used was just enough not to burn the churros.
Another country that claims to have invented a type of churros is Egypt, where documented engravings were found in the tomb of King Ramses III.
Although the engravings showed people making a type of dough, which is then fried, that’s how most bread would have been made at the time. Ovens were not readily available and the lack of yeast or other raising agents, meant that most breads were small or flat, so that they could be cooked quickly on the griddle or a frying pan.
Another story comes from the Far East, when Portuguese sailors tasted a type of churros in China and brought the idea with them back home. The Chinese called their snack ‘YouTiao’, but it was served as a savoury snack, not sweet.
Over the next few centuries, the Spanish made their own version of the snack by using a zig zag pastry tip, creating the churro’s shape that we know now.
Back then (in the 16th century) churros were eaten straightaway on its own or perhaps with a lump of sugar and cinnamon, although both would be quite rare and expensive at the time.
The next chapter in the history of churros comes with the return of the famous Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortez, who brought cocoa beans from the Americas.
This allowed the Spanish chefs to create a thick chocolate sauce (based on a very dark type of chocolate as milk or white chocolate wasn’t known at the time), which started to be served with freshly fried churros.
The churros recipe development
Originally, the ingredients for making churros were very basic – just flour (white or plain), water and salt. Sugar, eggs and butter were quite expensive at the time, so they didn’t get added in until modern times.
At first, the dough would have been quite thick to allow it to be shallow fried or cooked. Nowadays, using hot oil means that the churros batter is much thinner as it can get fried in the oil very quickly without absorbing much oil.
Being star shaped (from a profile) allows the oil to fry the sides really quickly making them lovely and crisp and leaving the inside of the churros soft. This also allows for various fillings.
The popularity of churros
Churros are now universally known as a ‘Spanish’ treat and are very popular in Spain, Portugal, Mexico and Latin America. When I see a food stall selling these at festivals, it’s usually a Spanish type of food track.
Churros became very popular in Latin America and Mexico because the Spanish conquerors brought churros with them in the 16th and 17th centuries.
A modern version of churros
How we know churros now is probably a bit different from what the original recipe was. The churros batter is pushed through the star opening (or a large zig zag pastry tip) straight into boiling oil.
They are fried very quickly so that the oil is not absorbed into the dough. Churros are coated in a caster (fine) sugar mixed with powdered cinnamon and eaten straightaway.
Churros can also served with chocolate sauce and you are meant to dip the individual churros in and eat them together.