Who Inspired the Original Sopapilla?

EDITOR NOTE: New Mexico claims the first American-style pillowy sopapilla, but the influence of fried bread may go back to Muslim Arabs that ruled Spain. The fried bread technique further influenced Colombian-style savory buñuelos, Mexican fried churros, and doughy French beignets.

Hispanic Heritage Month is fast upon us, which has me thinking about one of the most delicious fried dishes out there – sopapillas. They are such a staple in Hispanic culture that many Latin American countries have their own take on sopapillas. Not to mention that these beautiful honey-soaked, sugar-covered pillows are undeniably similar to New Orleans’ beloved beignets. For those unfamiliar with sopapillas, they are squares or rounds of fried dough made from simple choux pastry, with the addition of a leavening agent, such as baking powder. The word sopapilla (also sopaipilla or sopaipa) was introduced to the Spanish language in medieval Spain, from the Mozarabic language of Al-Andalus (the then-Muslim-controlled Iberian Peninsula). The Mozarabic word, xopaipa, meaning bread soaked in oil, was derived in turn from the ancient Germanic word suppa (literally bread soaked in liquid).

Unlike sopapillas, beignets are made from yeast dough. And that’s pretty much the only difference between the two. That’s why you’ll notice that sopapillas are light and flaky, while beignets are soft and doughy through and through, just like your traditional American doughnut.

The word beignet (literally fritter in French) comes from the early Celtic word bigne, meaning to rise. Beignets have been associated with French Mardi Gras since the 16th century. Prior to that, beignets were introduced into Mediterranean France in the Middle Ages through Andalusia, which was under Islamic rule at the time. REFRESHER ALERT (just to make sure you’re paying attention): this was around the same time that the sopapilla was popping up in Spain.

It is said that the beignet first made landfall in New Orleans in the 18th century, brought over to the great port city by French colonists. It even became the official state doughnut of Louisiana in 1986, well over 200 after its introduction to New Orleans.

Beignets and sopapillas have their savory side, too. Many variations include fillings like ground beef, avocado, mustard, ketchup, and garlic. Local restaurants take their savory beignet game to the next level with La Petit Grocery’s Blue Crab Beignets and Restaurant R’evolution’s Beer-Battered Crab Beignets.

But of course, we all crave our classic New Orleans beignets with that signature dusting of powdered sugar on top. Café du Monde is of course the original (the coffee stand was established in 1862 and still remains the Beignet Boss of Fat City), but it’s worth considering other local joints that bring their own NOLA flare to these irresistible pockets of heaven – like new kids on the block, The Vintage, on Magazine; Café Beignet on Royal Street; and New Orleans Coffee & Beignet Co. on St. Charles.

Sopapillas are just as easy to find – just go to your favorite Latin joint like Nacho Mama’s in Elmwood, Superior Grill on St. Charles, or La Carreta on Magazine. So, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month in NOLA, the next time you eat a beignet, call it a sopapilla, and vice versa. Now you know it’s not that much of a stretch.

And to top this off, coincidence or not, the Beignet Fest takes place in our city in the beginning of October since four years ago. Make sure you check out the 4th Annual Beignet Fest presented by French Market®Coffee on Saturday, October 5, 2019 from 10AM – 6PM at the Festival Grounds at City Park.

Originally Published on: Viva Nola

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