Havana Churros: Greasy Goodness
It was the scent that first caught my attention. The sweet smell of frying batter floated through the air, catching my nose and transporting me on a cloud of memories to funnel cakes and beaver tails at amusement parks and carnivals back home.
My interest – and nostrils – completely captured, I then noticed the line of people that snaked along the cobbled Calle Mercaderes in Old Havana. There were dozens in line – young Cuban children clutching coins or sprinting circles around their parents, teenage girls gossiping and tourists like me, who were mesmerized by the scent.
They were queuing for a lone man standing behind an aluminium cart and making a classic Spanish treat: churros. From an overhead dispenser, he squeezed out raw batter into a bubbling cauldron of hot oil. As the mixture poured, he swirled it in the oil, creating a perfect spiral of batter that was rapidly turning from a pale off-white to a glorious shade of deep-fried golden.
After a few flips of the spiral, he pulled it from the oil and cut it into chunks, then slid them, one by one, into a paper cone cup. He sprinkled them with thick sugar and handed the cone – now spotted with grease marks – to the next waiting customer. He maintained a slow, steady pace with each order, never rushing, never slowing down except when he had to refill the batter dispenser. It was a hypnotizing performance and as I stood there, watching him refill cup after cup, my taste buds started to shout at me — and demanded I join the ever-growing queue.
I waited in line for over an hour. And with the afternoon sun beating down, I contemplated abandoning my snack a few times. It was hot, and I was hungry and beginning to feel faint from standing motionless in the sun for so long. But each time I would consider leaving, the scent would waft over me and my mouth would be set salivating again.
When I finally reached the front of the line and he handed me the greasy paper cup of churros, it was all I could do not to snatch it from his hands in a hungered frenzy. I handed him 50 centavos and headed off for a quiet spot to enjoy my first taste of the popular treat.
I settled on the steps of the fountain in the middle of Plaza Vieja. Behind me, children splashed in the fountain, tackling one another, dunking their friends under the water and spraying me from behind, sending a pleasant chill down my back in the heat.
And then, I finally took my first bite of a churro. Hot, crunchy, with the perfect hit of sweetness. I gobbled down one after another, my fingers developing a slick, sticky layer of grease mixed with sugar.
Three Americans – who I learned had snuck their way into Cuba via Mexico – approached me.
“Are they as good as they look?” one woman asked. I nodded and held out the cup for each of them to take one.
They each bit in and had the same rapturous expression I imagined was on my own face. “Oh, those are gooooood, ” mumbled one woman through a mouthful of churro.
They thanked me, we chatted for a bit, and then they continued on their way. Alone again, I leaned back on the fountain steps, savouring my final churro under the hot Havana sun. Sometimes the best things in life really are the simplest. And worth the wait.
This is Part 3 of a special 4-part series from our woman in Havana, Tammy Burns.
For Part 1, read: The Malécon: Where Havana meets the ocean
For Part 2, read: Havana’s other Hemingway hangout