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You Tiao is the Mother of Churro? Could Both be from the Middle East?

An origin story of churros, that links the globally famous Spanish food icon with the Chinese you tiao is very popular. But it lacks documentary evidence, so I shall look for them. 

Traditionally made only with wheat flour, salt and water, churros are oil fried dough sticks flavoured with a dusting of sugar (and cinnamon powder). In Spain, churros are often enjoyed with a cup of hot chocolate. In the Spanish world, churros are enjoyed at churrerias as well as street side stalls.

According to the popular theory, the origin story starts in China, during the Southern Song dynasty (1127 - 1279). The Southern Song was under attack from nomadic tribes from the north. General Yue Fei (1103 - 1142) was sent to repulse the invaders.

Yue Fei's campaign was going well but when he was at the cusp of victory, the Emperor summoned him back to the palace (in Hangzhou). Apparently, Qin Hui, a minister convinced the Emperor that Yue Fei was plotting to overthrow him.

When Yue Fei returned and presented himself in front of the Emperor, he was promptly executed for treason.

<a href="">CC0</a> licensed <a href="">photo</a> by <a href="">Michael Tiña</a> from the <a href="">WordPress Photo Directory</a>.

When news spread that the loyal Yue Fei was executed on false accusations by the treacherous Qin Hui, the public was furious. A street hawker, shaped two human figures with wheat flour dough, one representing Qin Hui and the other his wife. He twisted them together and fried it in hot oil - the traditional Chinese punishment for lying to ruin another person's reputation. He called his creation, yu cha Hui or oiled fried Hui.

Yu cha Hui quickly caught on, eaten with tea, porridge, soup, etc. I can't have my bak kut teh without my yu cha Hui. It was later called yu cha kway or oil fried devil by Cantonese speakers (but more and more in recent years, replaced by the ahistorical name, you tiao or fried sticks 🤷 ). 

The first Portuguese to visit China was Jorge Álvares in 1513. The first official Portuguese settlement of Macau was in 1557 till its return to China in 1999.

According to the China - Portugal - Spain - World theory (which cites no primary sources), the Portuguese in China, chanced upon the ubiquitous yu cha kway. 

The Portuguese liked the yu char kway and brought the idea back home to Portugal. As the theory goes, the Portuguese couldn't get the dough stretching and pulling technique from the Chinese. The Chinese authorities is said to prohibit its subjects from transferring knowledge to foreigners. Anyone caught doing so, was to be put to death.

Hence, the Portuguese version of yu char kway had dough piped directly into boiling hot oil. The Portuguese called their version fartura which means "filling" in Latin. From Portugal, it spread to their Iberian neighbour Spain.

Over in the Spain, the fried fritters / crullers became popular with shepherds as it is an oil fried bread that does not need baking, just a pan of oil and fire - perfect for shepherding high in the rugged mountains of Andalusia. The Spanish shepherds named it churro because the way they made it, the fried sticks resembled the horns of Churra sheep they were shepherding. Some Churra rams have four horns, a rare trait among sheep breeds in the world.

The Spanish globalised the churro through their globe spanning empire.

In 1598, Juan de Oñate brought the Spanish Churra sheep to North America to feed the Spanish armies and settlers. The sheep was renamed Churro.

Churro in the Philippines. The Philippines was a colony of Spain from 1565 to 1898. Then, a colony of the USA from 1898 to 1946.

Churros in Venezuela where the Spaniards ruled from 1522 to 1811.

I have a question about this widely cited trajectory of Chinese yu cha kway to Portuguese fartura to Spanish churro theory. Why is the Portuguese fartura not a thing in Portuguese Malacca? Portuguese Goa? Portuguese Angola, Mozambique? It is also not big in Portuguese Brazil.

It isn't a thing in Portuguese Macau too but that might be explained by its proximity to China (if we believe the China origin story).

If we start the churro origin story with the churra sheep shepherds, then we can avoid the Chinese you tiao / yu cha kway contradiction completely.

If churros originated in the mountains of Spain, then the Portuguese fartura could be a derivative of the churro. Or, could churros and farturas come from something else?

Something closer to home.

During the Abbasid empire era which lasted from 750 to 1258, there were oil fried dough dishes known as Zalabiyeh  زلابية which are still enjoyed today across the Middle East.

Zalabiyat  زلابية was first mentioned in a 10th century Arabic cookbook Kitab al-Tabikh The Book of Dishes complied by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, the oldest known Arabian cookbook. In this book, various forms of zalabiyeh are mentioned:

"You can make them like discs (mudawwar), balls (mukabbab), or squares (murabbab). If your batter was done right, the moment the batter falls into the hot oil, it will puff and look like a bracelet (dumlåj) with a hollow interior."

(There is another Kitab al-Tabikh The Book of Dishes complied by Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi in the 13th century.)

Historians suggest that churros and farturas could be legacies of Moorish rule of the Iberian Peninsula from 711 to 1492 (781 years i.e. almost a millennium). The 
Muslim-ruled area of the Iberian Peninsula is known as Al-Andalus which included both modern day Spain and Portugal.

A 13th century cookbook from the Al-Andalus period mentioned a zulâbiyya (zalabiyeh) recipe which was flour and water dough fried in oil and drizzled with honey to serve.

Preparation of Zulabiyya

Knead fine flour and add water little by little until the dough is slack. Let it be lighter than the dough for musahhada [pancakes]. Leave it in a pot near the fire until it rises. You will know it is done when you tap on the side of the pot with your finger. If you hear a thick, dense sound, it has risen. 

And he who wishes it tinted and coloured may add to some of the batter the juice of brazilwood or gum-lac, or juice of madder or saffron, or juice of tender green fennel, or juice of fox grape. 

Then put a frying-pan on the fire with plenty of oil, and when the oil boils, take this runny batter and put it in a vessel with a pierced bottom. Put your finger over the hole; then raise your hand and the vessel over the frying pan and quickly remove your finger. The batter will run out through the hole into the frying-pan while you are turning your hand in circles, forming rings, lattices and so on, according to the custom of making it.

Be careful that the oil is not too little or too cool, or the batter will stick to the pan, but let it be abundant and boiling. 

When it is done, take it out carefully and throw it in skimmed spiced honey. When the honey has covered it, remove the pastry to a platter to drain. And serve up the zulabiyya.

This recipe of the zulabiyya which if you follow the instructions will give you a churro, was published between 1200 and 1400, i.e. within the Al-Andalus period (711 - 1492) and at least 100 years before the first Portuguese arrived in China.

The Algerians have زلابية البنان banana zlabia.

The Turkish have a deep fried piped dough snack known as tolumba. It is similar to the Spanish churro but stubby and shorter.

The oil fried piped dough dish also spread to Mughal India (
1526 - 1857) and became the jalabi.

The common features tying together the Spanish churro, Portuguese fartura, Turkish tolumba, Indian jelabi and the Al-Andalus zulâbiyya are:

All are made of flour and hot water

All are choux pastry i.e. uses no rising agent like yeast

All are piped dough

All are oil fried

All are sweet, flavoured with sugar, jaggery or honey.

In the Middle East, there are other forms of fried dough dish also known as zalabieh and various forms of it are found from Morocco to Algeria, Syria and Iran.

The wheat dough is kneaded, pinched and pulled into smaller pieces and oil fried till it is golden brown.

The yu cha kway itself could be an iteration of Chinese derivatives of the 
zalabieh which came to China via the overland Silk Road which ran from 114 BC to the 1450s. 

The convenience of oil frying accorded the churra shepherds of Spain probably served the Silk Road's caravan traders as well. Oil and a pan is easier to carry around than a tandoor oven for making breads. 

The zalabieh / zulabiya could already be in China before it reached Al-Andalus. Did oil fried bread travelled from west (Middle East) to east (China) or east to west on the Silk Road?

The recipe for oil fried "Ring Cake" from the 6th century Qimin Yaoshu 齊民要術 acknowledged that fried breads were from Muslims for whom "oil fried wheaten food is also a main food [staple]".

The description of "oil fried wheaten food is thin and uniform, crispy and bright in colour, beautiful in shape, very delicious" seem to fit the sanzi 炸馓子 dish of China's Hui people well.

The Chinese have a oil fried dough butterfly similar to the fried dough 


Oil fried flour dough existed in the Middle East and China thousands of years ago.

The first documentary record is from 6th century China in Qimin Yaoshu 齊民要術.

The earliest documentary record from the Middle East is Kitab al-Tabikh The Book of Dishes from the 10th century.

Oil fried flour dough comes in many forms in the Middle East and in China. In the Middle East, it is called zulabiya (with name variations according to the region and variety of oil fried bread).

In the Chinese 6th century Qimin Yaoshu 齊民要術 oil fried bread is acknowledged to come from the Muslim world.

13th century cookbook from the Al-Andalus period in Spain has a recipe for a zulabiya which is similar to the Spanish churro.

The Spanish churro and Chinese yu cha kway might be distant cousins by way of being derivatives of the Middle Eastern oil fried breads (zulabiya).

However, it is unlikely that the Spanish first learn how to make churros from the Portuguese who were inspired by the Chinese you tiao in the 16th century. 

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Written by Tony Boey on 25 Apr 2024


Portuguese 16th Century Diplomacy in China 

The recipe for oil fried "Marrow Cake" from the 6th century 
Qimin Yaoshu 齊民要術 acknowledged that baked breads were from Muslims. The Hu cake roaster is probably a tandoor oven.

1 comment:

  1. the more interesting study would by how some people won't eat you tiao bcos it is fattening but swear by churros 🙂


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