Churros: The ultimate in comfort

Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Embassy Leisure, elaborates on what makes churros such a beloved treat worldwide – and why it is worth making a DIY kit for.

Contemplate churros. It is deep-fried, long horns (in Mexico, at least) made of a cooked dough that has flour, egg, water, and butter, and then dusted with fragrant cinnamon sugar. Everything that would not fit into a nutritionist’s recommended recipe of success for good health. And yet, when it comes to an instant treat or a true, up-in-the-air feeling, nothing quite beats these all-golden-brown sticks that are today both an indulgence and a classic treat.

Chef vikas seth
Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Embassy Leisure, had his first tryst with churros in Mexico City, the place that has been popularising this treat since the 15th century.

What plays to the palate gallery is that it is served with an irresistible range of the most luscious chocolate dips, caramel, or, adds Chef Vikas Seth, “the Mexican way with cajeta, a type of dulce de leche or thickened caramel made with goat’s milk”. That is exactly what Chef Seth’s DIY churro kit (out this month) promises to deliver. “The thing about churros,” says the Mexican specialist, “is that it is this dish that fulfils all the taste parameters thanks to the way it is made. It is a crispy, golden brown, sweet treat that has enough layering of fat and lightness to give it the same addictive palate feel as perhaps a well-baked chocolate profiterole. A reason for this is because both the sweet treats are made of choux pastry. But the other rationale behind the treat’s popularity is also its composition that works towards creating this brilliant palate play of flavours that not just works on our tastebuds but also our senses, especially our neurological response to the sweet-savouriness of well-fried, light churros.”

The dough used to make churros is choux pastry, which when cooked through different stages with water, salt, eggs, and butter results in starch gelatinisation that keeps the dough light, airy and gives it that distinct, horn-like structure, and that brown hue that earned it the moniker “horns of Navajo-Churro Sheep or Churra” from the tribes of Iberia who made a similar treat back in ancient times.  

“Fascinatingly,” explains Chef Seth, “churros as we know today had a similar iteration in Egypt around the time of Ramses III’s reign as well – proof of this is the Lebanese mushabbak. In fact, the pulled dough, fried sweet treat was commonplace back in the day when bakeries were a rare luxury. And while history credits the Spanish conquistadors and Portuguese sailors for introducing the art of deep-frying dough to Latin America and the region around, the country that most likely popularised churros in its ancient format is China and was called youtiao or as the Cantonese would say, yàuhjagwái (translated as oil fried devil), a treat that was first made as a sign of political protest.

Folklore has it that youtiao symbolise the betrayal and death of Yue Fei, the 12th-century Song dynasty general and war hero who tried to bring peace to the kingdom but was betrayed by Qin Hui. Even today, the making of the dough treat symbolises the drowning and boiling of the twin effigies of Qin Hui and his wife.

But folklore aside, youtiao remains a popular savoury breakfast treat that is best enjoyed with soy milk. It is this format that many culinary anthropologists believe inspired the Portuguese sailors who took it to other parts of the world, including Spain, from where it travelled to Mexico, where it turned into a popular treat that the chocolaterías and churrerías served with great relish.”

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Churros first became popular in ancient China. Known as youtiao, they were made as a sign of political protest. It is this format that culinary anthropologists believe inspired Portuguese sailors who took it to other parts of the world.

How did the chocolate pairing with churros come into play? That is outright the work of the Mexican chocolaterías, according to Chef Seth who tasted his first churros in Mexico City, a place that has been popularising the treat since the 15th century. Courtesy the ingenuity of the churrerías, experts known for their innovative ways to present churros, by the time colonisation was at its peak, the modern-day churrah was a street treat hugely popular across colonies that spun their own yarn on the iterations. “However,” adds the culinary expert, “what did not change much was the use of the dough, which, thanks to French bakers, shifted from the simple dough of flour, oil and salt to a sophisticated choux pastry – a dough that made churros easier on the palate.”

Consequently, the popularity of churros as a delicious treat grew, creating a market for a treat that was already a part of the world’s culinary DNA, including India, where there was Sel Roti, a close cousin. In fact, the shift to the choux pastry was churros’ masterstroke, giving the slightly dense dessert its quintessential lightness, crunch and that beautiful colour that easily pairs with a variety of dips that today highlight which region the churros are from, although the all-time-favourite remains the Mexican style one that is served with chocolate, designed along the lines of the original hot chocolate.

Chef Seth says, “While traditional Mexican churros are a masterpiece when it comes to well thought of treats, like most choux pastry-based desserts, these too are dependent on the technique – the right kind of soft dough, anything less gel like and there is a good chance that the churros would collapse into an oil-soaked pillow; the right temperature of oil so that you get this all-round crispiness and browning, which would determine how much of the cinnamon sugar dusting penetrates the churros. And yet, even with the best-made churros, the treat does not fare well when travelling.”

One of the key reasons that nudged Chef Seth to start working on a DIY kit for churros early this year was to ascertain how to give diners the same experience as they would have while dining at Sanchez. The outcome of the R&D that lasted almost three months was a kit that not only came with the option of dips, including the chocolate and cajeta (Mexican caramel sauce or a type of dulce de leche) and the sugar mix, but also a pre-done choux pastry that was just at the right temperature to work with ease, all packed and sealed in a piping bag along with the nozzle.

Eventually, a readjustment in the protein component of the traditional choux pastry was the solution. The slight tweak makes the dough taste richer and responsive to medium flame cooking, which, according to the chef, is recommended to get that even browning and crunch.

Which brings us to the quandary: Why are churros so popular if they do not serve any purpose? “The reason for this,” say nutritional experts, “is that even in the traditional way of making it, churros are the best example of calories that are already broken down thanks to the dual process of cooking the dough — which makes the starch soluble enough. And the layer of fat in it aids to calm the brain by supplying it with the fuel it needs to function well. A response we usually recognise as ‘happiness’. In addition to that, there is a sudden energy surge in the body with all the sugar intake — which drops down faster if not supplemented with a dip that functions as a second layer of energy.”

That’s where the dip’s role gains significance, especially that of the chocolate dip, which is believed to be a slightly better option than pure caramel. In moderation, churros function like any other calorie-dense breakfast — good for an instant spurt of energy.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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