One of my favorite things in life is having visitors. This started in college, back when I would drag anyone who visited me around to every monument, boutique, and local diner I could cram into their stay. Part of my excitement of giving tours to family and friends is linked to being lucky enough to live in two bustling, vibrant cities—formerly Chicago, and now Madrid—but I was just as enthusiastic to show people around the couple of smaller towns I lived in, too. For me, the only thing better than finding a new coffee shop, restaurant, or even just a cute calleis sharing that spot with others.
When friends and family come to visit Madrid, the first thing I start planning is where to eat (shocking, I know!). My decision is based on several factors, including number of days they’ll be in the country, if they’ve visited previously, and plans to visit other Spanish cities. For example, when a friend is only going to be in the city for a few days, a trip to Segovia for cochinillo probably isn’t in the cards. Or if a family member is planning on traveling to Sevilla, I’m not going to waste their time eating Andalusian foods like cazón or berenjenas con miel (fried eggplant drizzled with honey) when they can eat them in the region that’s made those foods famous.
But there’s one food that’s always in the plan, no matter how long the trip, how many visits, or how tired after a transatlantic flight: churros, at San Ginés, right after landing in the city.
Before visiting Spain, my only exposure to churros was at Disney World. If you’ve ever been (or maybe had churros at a street fair), churros in Spain are actually quite different than what you’re familiar with, starting with the dough. According to Glamour, Disney lists butter, eggs, and sugar among their ingredients. In Spain, however, the masatypically consists of only flour, water and salt. The common factor between the two is that the dough is then piped into a vat of hot oil and fried until golden and crisp (here they use special tools called churreras, not to be confused with churreros, who are the people that make the churros).
A more visible difference between Spanish churros and those that I’ve found in the US is that churros here are served tal cual.That is, they don’t have any type of coating (a cinnamon sugar mix is common in the US) or filling (like chocolate or caramel). Instead, they’re typically dipped in a taza of hot chocolate. This hot chocolate is not the Swiss Miss you may be thinking of; instead, it’s slightly thicker, with a much more rich, intense chocolate flavor. For chocolate haters and non-dairy enthusiasts, it’s acceptable and encouraged to sprinkle a bit (or a lot) of sugar on top and eat them alongside a cup of coffee (also good for dipping!).
Churros here usually come in two forms: slightly curved, as in the first picture, or a thin loop that resembles a tear drop as pictured above. In this article, they mention that churros are sometimes made in huge spirals and then cut into smaller pieces, resulting in the curved (as opposed to tear drop) shape. This allows for making higher volumes of churros at once by maximizing frying space.
Churros also have a thicker, more airy cousin in Spain called a porra. Porras are softer, and slightly squishier than churros in that if you pinch them between your fingers they will give a bit. Churros, on the other hand, are much more rigid. Some people have a clear favorite—David is Team Porra—but I like both equally. If you’re in Spain and decide to order a porra, just don’t make the mistake of ordering a porro instead, or you’ll be asking for something quite different!
In trying to find the history of churros, I learned that there’s no concrete answer for their origins. Wikipedia lists the birthplace of the treat as either Spain or Portugal. But it seems like the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula may have had a little inspiration from other cultures. One theory states that the Portuguese brought the idea of fried dough with sugar back from China. Another is that churros came from the time when Spain was under Arabic rule. The truth is murky, and as historical gastronomy expert Michael Krondl points out in this article from El Confidencial, this type of fried dough has existed in the Mediterranean since, well, forever. “And, in a certain way, the churro as we know it today isn’t that different from a recipe for fritters made from flour and water that you can already find in a Roman cookbook from the 1st century B.C.”
In Spain, churros are often offered in neighborhood restaurants and cafes as part of their desayuno.Most of these places don’t make their own churros; instead, they are sourced from churrerías that are tucked into unassuming locales throughout the city. You would probably never even know the churrerías were there unless you were to pass by in the morning; most close by noon, and some even earlier. Churrerías like the one pictured below only offer the treats para llevar, but others have places where you can sit and enjoy the churros on site.
Outside of breakfast, you’ll usually see people having churros as a merienda.Merienda here is a snack typically eaten around 18h/6pm, or really any time between lunch and dinner. If you’re going to merendar churros, it’s best to seek out an actual churrería to ensure that they are fresh and not just reheated from that morning.
You can’t talk about churros without referencing the most famous (and best, in my opinion) churrería in Madrid: Chocolatería San Ginés. As I mentioned above, it’s the place that we always take visitors, first thing in the morning after their plane lands if we can convince them that it’s worth it (and it usually doesn’t take much convincing; not many people can say no to fried dough dipped in molten chocolate). If you’ve seen the Madrid episode of Somebody Feel Phil on Netflix, this is one of the places that he visits while in the city. But the truth is that Madrileños have been frequenting San Ginés since before Phil was even born!
Sometimes touristy places can be an estafa,but San Ginés is the real deal. Opened in 1894, it is sin duda the most famous churrería in the city, and with good reason. When you go to San Ginés, you know that you’re going to get fresh, crispy churros and porras served alongside high quality, smooth hot chocolate (I can also vouch for the coffee). You should also know that you’re most likely going to encounter a long line. But don’t fret—the workers at San Ginés have ordering and seating down to a science, so your wait will likely be less that you think. Speaking of seating, the terraza is a great choice if the weather is nice, but I also recommend the inside seating in the downstairs section of the main building, as it sort of feels like you’re sitting in an underground train car (if you sit elsewhere, it’s also where one of the bathrooms is located, so you can take a peek).
I eat plenty of churros in the summer (admittedly usually only when we have visitors), but in my headwinter is churro season. For one, meeting up for churros y chocolate is a commonly proposed plan around the holidays to catch up with friends. Hot chocolate is also a cozy antithesis to cooler weather, making a churrería visit all the more appealing. But the main reason that the treat is forever associated with winter for me is thanks to David and his brother: more than once we’ve found ourselves at 6:00am on January 1st hunting for churros post-NYE party (yes, that means staying up until 6:00am; this is Spain after all!). Forget diets and gyms, kicking off a new year by eating crunchy, fried dough—followed by taking a long nap—is where it’s at. Viva España!
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If you don’t live in Spain/have a trip planned soon but happen to live close to Miami, San Ginés is planning to open a location there soon (they’ve already expanded to Tokyo, Mexico, and Argentina). Or if you want to try your hand at making churros at home, the official tourism page of Madrid has the recipe that is supposedly used by San Ginés (you can also see more pictures of the beautiful interior of the restaurant at the link). It could be a fun alternative to holiday cookies this year!
Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you ever had churros, either in Spain or elsewhere? If you’ve had both churros and porras, which do you like better? What’s your preferred form of fried dough? Let me know in the comments!
As a reminder, you can participate in the current Sunday Sobremesa by clicking here or going to the newsletter homepage (it should be pinned to the top). This time around we’re talking about cooking and baking activities with kids, and I love all the ideas you’ve come up with so far!
See you next week!
*This title made the song “We Don’t Talk about Bruno” from Encanto pop into my head, and now it’s on repeat. You’re welcome. :)
Tal cual: As is
Quote has been translated from Spanish. Here’s the original: “Y, en cierta manera, el churro tal y como lo conocemos hoy no es tan diferente de una receta de buñuelos hechos de harina y agua que ya se encuentra en un libro de cocina romano del siglo I a.C.”
Para llevar: To go
Merienda: Afternoon snack
Merendar: To eat merienda/an afternoon snack
Estafa: Scam. It’s one of my favorite words to use jokingly (another influence from David’s brother). But be careful how/when you use it—I once accidentally offended my dentist (he luckily forgave me).
On the history of San Ginés: You can read more about it here (and the page can be translated if needed)!
Sin duda: Without a doubt
On churros being eaten in the winter: This is truly my own view; churros are a year-round food.
I absolutely loved reading this - I knew literally nothing about churros other than the cliché Disneyland bit. This is so cool. Porras remind me of a Chinese dough called "Youtiao" which translates to 'fried dough.' It's a bit chewy and slightly salted and typically eaten with Chinese porridge for breakfast or dipped in sweetened soy milk, which doesn't sound the most appealing. 😅 I've only ever eaten it dry and I'm not a huge fan, but my mum loves it as it's something she ate as a child in Hong Kong.