Street Food Focus: Churros

By: Allana Mortell

In a city of thirteen million people with over 20,000 restaurants to choose from, there are still some days I find myself unsure of what I want to eat. I'll walk by a restaurant and browse the menu, but end up leaving because I either need to "save my pennies" or realistically, look for something quick, cheap and on-the-go.  And since my sweet tooth always overpowers my other taste buds, I often find myself wandering the streets, running after that distinctive smell of butter, sugar and cinnamon. Enter, the churro.

With their crisp, shimmering, golden-brown outsides and soft, gooey insides, the churro is a characteristic Spanish dessert whose popularity has enormously grown over the past years.  A typical churro is made from the basics - flour, water, sugar, eggs and vanilla - however, their shape is all unique. After being piped from a syringe with a star-shaped nozzle, the pastry dough is then lightly fried in vegetable oil and finished off with a traditional coating of cinnamon and sugar.

The origin of the churro proves especially interesting, since there has been long debate over who actually discovered this fried treat. Though legend does state that Spanish shepherds first developed the churro, there are other stories saying the Portuguese sailors brought the churro over from Northern China, where it was originally called "You Tiao." Regardless, popularity quickly spread of this fried pastry that could be eaten for breakfast, lunch, dessert or simply as a quick and tasty snack.

Given the plain nature of the traditional dessert, the options are seemingly endless in playing with different flavor combinations for the churro. Originally, the Spanish churro was the size of a breadstick with no outer ridges and either eaten plain or rolled with cinnamon sugar. Now, in Spain, there are two separate kinds of this pastry, the churro that is generally more thin and fluted and the porra, a longer, thicker version, never folded and often commonly found in Madrid. Both are always crunchy on the outside with a soft center and depending on the region, sugar and cinnamon may be sprinkled on top.

In Cuba, churros are served with guava, a type of fruit filling whereas in Chile, Argentina and Brazil they are served with dulce de leche and finally, in Spain and all over the United States, churros are best served next to a piping hot cup of thick, rich chocolate or "churros con chocolate," as we all say. In Spain, Mexico and the Philippines, its tradition to serve churros as breakfast or an afternoon snack, often sold by street vendors or even from carts in amusement parks.

Now, you can imagine my surprise during the first week I arrived in New York and saw churros being sold from a cart at the bottom of a dirty subway platform. I ventured over, hungry as always and was pleasantly surprised to see how much bang I was actually getting for my buck. Color me shocked that the four quarters I had steeped in my pockets  bought me three whole churros doused in cinnamon sugar, ready to be absolutely devoured. Turns out, I wasn't the only churro-lover patron in this subway radius. Within two minutes, trains came and left and over 15 people stopped to grab some fried sugary dough.

These days, however, random subway stops and street vendors aren't the only staples in the city to find authentic churros. Recently, La Churreria in Nolita opened and has gained quite the cult following for selling homemade churros for a price slightly rivaling its subway-selling counterparts. For 3 bucks, you can snag 3 churros or for 10 bucks, grab 8.

So whether you're in the neighborhood or racing up (or down) those subway steps, beware of those churros carts. You'll be surprised how quickly your one-dollar bills slowly start to disappear.

Photo: Ken Stein and cherrypatter 

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