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Tasting fried bread around the world

Fried dough as a snack is ubiquitous and enjoyed around the world in myriad shapes, sizes and interpretations of both, the sweet and savoury kind

Traditional Bulgarian (Balkan) breakfast - Mekitzi (mekici) with cheese and jam (Photo Courtesy: Istockphoto)
Traditional Bulgarian (Balkan) breakfast - Mekitzi (mekici) with cheese and jam (Photo Courtesy: Istockphoto)

I have always subscribed to the notion, that, the art of making fuggias is one where parallels can effectively be drawn to a surgeon at work. Nimble finger skills, precision and that all-important prerequisite of razor-sharp concentration are just some of the many qualities that link these two very disparate activities.

For you see, this iteration of fried dough—made by Mumbai’s indigenous East Indian (EI) community—is edible art in and of itself. Named after the Marathi fugga for balloon, fuggias are made from a medium-to-thick slurry of refined flour, eggs, coconut milk, sugar, salt and yeast as a leavening agent. After an overnight fermentation, the batter is scooped up by hand and a small ball is created by squeezing the batter in the web between one’s index finger and thumb. Pinched with the other clean hand’s fingers, said ball of sticky dough is then gently plopped into a pan containing hot vegetable oil. This is then deep-fried till the ball rises to the surface, basking in its newly acquired golden brown tan. Used to mop up gravies like the EI version of pork sorpotel and mutton lonvas—among other EI delicacies—fuggias are irresistible. I, however, prefer them eaten on their own, piping hot off the kadhai!

What’s interesting to note is that, just like our humble fuggia here in Western India, almost every food culture of the world has some sort of fried dough delicacy that’s often eaten as a quick snack on the go. Often made from just three ingredients: flour, eggs and milk with seasonings of salt or sugar. And that’s exactly what makes, both, the consummate fried food junkie, and travel lover in me, seek them out wherever I go.

Fried and Tested

Earlier this year, on a trip to Qatar, I discovered the fuggia’s Middle Eastern cousin on a stroll along the capital Doha’s Souq Wakif. Called luqaimat, these coconut milk-bereft fried dough balls I saw, were first doused (whilst still hot), in either honey or date syrup (as per one’s choice) and then sprinkled with toasty sesame seeds, giving them a delicious taste and crunchy top coat.

On a free food tour of its capital Sofia’s edible treasures, I was privy to Bulgaria’s love affair with the mekitisa. At our pit stop at the hipster-chic Mekitsa & Coffee shop in downtown Sofia, we were given a sample of a yummy cream cheese and fig jam smeared mekitsa. Made with a wheat-based dough enriched with yogurt and eggs, the deep-fried mekitsi (plural) can also be had in their savoury avatar. And that’s exactly what the very generous counter staff plied us with next—a mini mekitsa slathered in another Bulgarian dairy staple, the salty-sour cream called smetana.

A little further west, in Hungary to be more precise, while researching a story on the beloved smoked paprika spice of the nation, I was made to try a langos. And life was never the same for me again! Freshly fried, the one I had at the Great Market Hall in Budapest was a knockout with its deep fried doughy top slathered in sour cream and velvety mashed potatoes. Though, today, the langos is a deep fried flatbread, in the past, I was told that it was made of the last bits of the bread-dough and baked at the front of the oven, served hot as a breakfast staple.

Breaking Bread

In the North American countries, I found that the culinary history of fried dough has been written with the ‘ink’ supplied by the indigenous people. Called frybread by the first nations people of Canada and by the native Americans of the US, this form of carbohydrate has mutated into several versions over the years. Known as bannock in Canada, it is a fried dough that the Métis people of western Canada and the northern Great Plains in the United States, adopted as their own cuisine over the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, brands like the famous Beaver Tails have co-opted the bannock making it a popular American fair ground snack. Along with others like the French-inspired, powdered sugar topped doughnut-like biegnet and the cloyingly sweet funnel cake.

On a magical trip to the Caribbean twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, I soon realised that the best place to try the Trinobagan national fried dough snack of ‘bake and shark’ is at Richard’s Shack at Maracas Bay in Trinidad. Basically composed of a piece of fried shark filet wedged between fried roti (thanks to the huge Indian diaspora) dough bread, called ‘bake’, no bake and shark sandwich is complete without dousing it with a virtual cornucopia of condiments. Featuring among others, the unique shado beni chutney that is made from a leafy Trinidadian herb called shado beni that is a bit like coriander.

Going far, far East towards the archipelago that is the Philippines, I found that the pinoy penchant for ascribing cutesy, double barrelled names applies to food as well. So, here the fried dough of shakoy, also goes by lubid-lubid and bicho-bicho. Just like most of the others in the piece, this one too is the sum of its flour, salt, sugar, and yeast parts. The only difference is that once prepared, the dough is shaped into an elongated log and twisted into a braid, then sprinkled with granulated sugar before it is deep-fried to golden perfection. Just as it should be!

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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