Bunuelos are Spanish-speaking countries' answer to doughnuts or fritters. These bits of fried dough come in all sizes, shapes and flavors, ranging from savory to sweet. Around the world, people are enticed by these little balls or flat cakes of dough, typically crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. They are also called bimuelos, birmuelos, bermuelos, burmuelos or bunyols.
Culinary historians have traced the origin of bunuelos to ancient times. Europe's Iberian Peninsula is consider the birthplace of the bunuelo. Oaxacan historian Ruben Vasconcelos claims, however, that bunuelos are not purely Spanish in tradition, but actually reflect the Arab heritage of settlers on the peninsula. During the Spanish settlement of the Americas, explorers brought the bunuelo tradition with them. From there, many cultures adopted their version of bunuelos, resulting in recipes such as waffles, donuts, churros, funnel cake and cream puffs.
Bunuelos are as diverse as the people in the countries that make them. Most bunuelos share a common origin of consisting of a wheat-based dough. Many people add anise seeds to the dough. The dough is then rolled thin and then cut and shaped into an individual piece. In Mexico, the shape may be a ball or a pancake, and even a thin twisted strip of dough that is then deep fried in oil. Some bunuelos come with sugar or honey on top, while others are filled with jam, cream, cheese or even yams.
In Columbia, bunuelos are a savory treat and the dough is made with white cheese curd. Mexicans add a brown sugar, guava and cinnamon syrup. Some Latin American countries substitute the brown sugar for piloncillo, a hot sugar cane syrup. Cubans add yucca and malanga to the dough base and twist the concoction into the shape of a figure eight. Nicaraguans also add yucca to the dough, which is then shaped into balls, fried, and served with a light honey. Other countries with their versions of bunuelos are Turkey, the Netherlands, India and Russia. Some Jewish people use matzo meal as the base of the bunuelo dough. In Oaxaca, Mexico, New Year's Eve bunuelos are served on thin china plates that must be smashed against the wall or on the ground while making a wish for the new year.
Restaurants, street stalls and chefs have taken liberties with the traditional bunuelo over the years, resulting in some confusing overlaps with Native American fry bread and with sopapillas. However, buenuelos are different in that the consistency of the dough is lighter and crispier than the fried dough concoctions made by Native Americans in the Southwest of the United States.
In her 1972 book, "The Cuisines of Mexico," Diana Kennedy discusses the versatility and popularity of bunuelos: "Most countries have their version of bunuelos, or fritters, either sweet or savory, and they are certainly great favorites throughout Spain and Latin America". She revels in the special style of bunuelos made in Uruapan, in which the fried dough is broken into small pieces and then bathed in a warm syrup of piloncillo, a raw sugar. She notes that much of Mexico makes a bunuelo with stiffer dough, allowing the baker to roll the batter extra thin before frying it.