“Ah! It’s open!” says my partner, and leads me forward.
The back of this side-street is filled with a scatter of tables clustered around an open doorway. And sat at them are lots of people, scooping up…what is that, liquid chocolate? Using breadsticks?
“Uh, is this a Spanish thing?” I ask her. “Because I’m really not sure my arteries can…”
“Oh come on. You like doughnuts, right?”
“Of course. Who doesn’t?”
“Well, these are what Europeans eat instead of them.”
In one sense, this isn’t quite true: every country has its traditional form of circular fried, sweetened dough bread, from the Austrian and German Krapfen that probably started everything off (unless it was the Portuguese, importing the Chinese Youtiao), to Italian icing-sugar-dusted Bombolini, or the Spanish Rosquillas. And then of course the United States has turned donut-worship into something approaching a religion - which has spread outwards to cover the globe, via multinational chains like Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald’s.
But it’s also bang on the money. The patrons here in the back streets of Madrid - and elsewhere around the city, as I’ll discover in the days ahead - aren’t usually eating doughtnuts. No discernable donutting is going on. Instead, what they seem to be dipping into their cups of hot, sticky chocolate right now are ridged breadsticks, looking a bit like golden rebar.
This is how I had my first churro - with a great deal of confusion and curiosity that turned quickly to enlightened conviction.
This isn’t a roast (or a fry?) of doughnuts. I’ll happily add myself to a list of people who love them a little too much for their own good - and thanks to the arrival of Tim Hortons here in Scotland, I would argue I’ve had some of the best that globalized coffeehouse culture has available in the world today. (Also: kudos to Canadians to be the first ones to successfully sell the hole in a donut!)
But - okay, let’s start with the shape. You know how it’s an unspoken truth that triangularly-cut sandwiches taste better than rectangular ones? (This is enough of a universally agreed-upon thing that, perhaps a little ridiculously, it’s been studied by a mathematician.) Well, doughnuts taste better when they’re straight. Perhaps it’s something about the amount of sugar-crusted outside you get with every bite - I don’t know. And you can hold them better. They’re just more holdable.
But whatever opinion you form on the rankings of churros versus doughnuts, you need to be able to recognise all aspects of the former to have a good time in Europe. You really do.
For example, if you’re coming with Wheel & Anchor to Istanbul next year at the start of our 2-week journey yachting the Turkish Mediterranean, you’ll be in the big city for four nights - so please, go scoff a Turkish churro as soon as you can, if only to give yourself ample time to recover from the experience.
Only thing is, it won’t be called a churro - this is Türkiye, not España or elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world - so there are two names you need to look out for.
First:Tulumba (or Bamiyeh). In a way, these are the Timbits of the Turkish churro scene: about the size of those little cocktail sausages you find on skewers with cheese & pineapple at parties, and absolutely dripping with syrup. They’re usually served cold (which allows their syrup-absorption and stickiness to max out) and, despite that syrup, they have a satisfyingly crunchy exterior, just like a good, fresh churro, and hopefully a non-syrup-saturated fluffy middle.
(If they’re not on the menu but you spot the name jalebi, give those a try instead - they’re essentially donut pretzels and should satisfy you in exactly the same way as tulumba.)
But if you’re after the full monty - and can put aside a few hours to either determinedly burn off those calories walking around or napping all that sugar off in your hotel room - you’ll want Halka Tatlisi.
It’s not hard to find: like churros elsewhere, it’s a street food, designed to be held in a paper napkin and nibbled as you go exploring - so you’ll find kiosks and street-facing hatches in the sides of shops, much the same way desserts (like ice cream) are sold elsewhere.
The big difference with halka tatlisi is of quantity. There’s no bite-sized here: you’re getting the full thing, which in this case may be a big semicircle of sticky, corkscrew-patterned bread chopping off at the far corners (where it’s taken from a much larger continuous swirl of the stuff being fried in a pan) - or a self-contained circlet of similar donut-like material.
However it comes out to you, there will be a lot of it. It’ll be glazed with syrup, sprinkled with crushed nuts and stuffed with calories - and it’s possible that the last fact is the origin of one of its less socially acceptable nicknames, as Bonita Grima recently wrote for BBC Travel:
“Found on every corner and said to help restore one's vigour after hours spent walking the busy streets, the circular dough that's deep-fried to a golden-brown and soaked in syrup has long been associated with the city's seedier side. And it's that connotation that gave rise to its local nickname of the "brothel dessert".
"[It's] known as a 'natural viagra'," said Turkish celebrity chef and restaurateur Somer Sivrioğlu, explaining its cheeky nickname to me.””
So, yeah. Let’s not speculate further on this point, and just say: it’s basically a churro (except the Turkish ones are much more syruppy) - and whatever country you’re in, you should never turn something down that looks like a churro. Imagine if you were turning down your very first doughnut! You’d never forgive yourself...
Wheel & Anchor is eating its way through Istanbul at the end of September 2023, before sailing by yacht into the Turkish Mediterranean. Get the details here.
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