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Sopapillas are a type of fried pastry which originated in New Mexico, although they are related to many South and Central American fried doughs. Latin American sopapillas are different from New Mexican ones, which leads to some confusion for diners expecting one dish and getting another. A New Mexican sopapilla is a pillow-like puff of fried pastry accomplished by making a special dough which puffs up as it fries, like a doughnut. It can be served sweet or savory, depending on region or taste, and is an important element of New Mexican and Southwestern cuisine. A Latin American sopapilla is a type of tortilla.
The name “sopapilla” probably originates from the Spanish sopaipa, another term for a sweet fried dough. Similar pastries include churros and bunelos, which tend to be seasoned in the same way, and are also made from sweetened fried doughs. When made sweet, sopapillas are drizzled with honey or anise syrup, and sometimes rolled in cinnamon sugar. When made savory, sopapillas are filled with beans, ground meat, or other ingredients. A sopapilla can also be eaten plain with a side of honey to dip it in, and sopapillas are always served hot, as they get heavy and greasy when cold.
The sopapilla is probably related to a wider family of fried and oil dipped breads common all over Latin America and Spain, along with the rest of the world. Most regional cooks have a soft spot in their heart for sweet, fried pastries, and the sopapilla appears to have originated approximately 200 years ago in New Mexico, although it spread quickly all over the Southwest. In parts of Mexico, sopapillas are made New Mexico style, although the name is not recognized as a food in other regions of Mexico, a nation with immensely varied cuisine.
In Latin America, sopapillas are puffed tortillas which are either roasted in ash or fried, depending on the region. Usually Latin American sopapillas are served as a dessert food, drizzled in syrup or sweet fruit, although they can also be found in a salty incarnation. They are particularly popular in Chile, although they can be found at roadside stands in other Latin American nations as well. In some parts of Latin America, sopapillas are made with squash doughs, rather than corn or wheat, which lends an intensely sweet and slightly caramelized flavor that many consumers rave about.