Conchas Are An Important Part Of Mexican Cuisine Today, But Where Did They Come From?
Are you the type to dip your conchas in café por las mananas? Or do you like them with beans and sour cream, oozing with all that sweet and salty goodness? No matter how you eat them, it’s undeniable that conchas are a quintessential part of the Mexican diet—they’re perhaps the most ubiquitous type of pan dulce, gracing the shelves of panaderias all over the US and Mexico. Instantly recognizable from their shell-like appearance (“concha” does mean “shell,” after all), conchas are a special feature at holidays like El Dia de Los Muertos and Navidad, but they’re always around for us to enjoy at any moment. And while they play a major part in the daily lives of Latinos across the country, they have a curious history that makes them taste that much sweeter.
Like many current Latin American foods, conchas can be traced back to the colonial era, when the Spanish brought some of their culinary customs across the Atlantic.
Wheat was deeply important to early Spanish settlers. Not only were wheat breads a major part of the European diet, but wheat also carried a religious connotation within their Catholic faith. Just think about misa: the ritual of the Eucharist involves the passing and consumption of a wafer, and this wafer is (and always has been) made from wheat.
In addition to the Spanish, French recipes also took root in the Americas as demand for wheat-based bread grew. The appearance of skilled French bakers in the 17th century led to the implementation of things like brioche buns, baguettes, and (por suerte) the early ancestors of panes dulces into the “New World” diet. (Fun fact: the first French military intervention in Mexico was actually called Guerra de los Pasteles, or The Pastry War.)
It is said that pan dulce is really the result of highly creative collaborations between Catholic nuns, indigenous women, and criollas innovating with the limited ingredients they had access to at the time. In fact, most panes dulces today consist of a blend of indigenous and European ingredients, (like corn flour and wheat flour). Conchas, specifically, are made from yeasted brioche dough—dough that is inherently eggy and fatty (read: ridiculously delicious).
The concha consists of two main parts: a sweet, bready base and a crunchy sugar topping.
The concha adopts the appearance of a shell by pressing a bread stamp over the topping during the final rise of the dough, right before placing it in the oven to bake. Although the bread itself is soft, airy, and delicious, it doesn’t usually bear much flavor—the topping is home to most of the taste and texture. These flavors can range from chocolate and vanilla to pink and yellow (yep, you read that right—if you’re a true concha connoisseur, you know that each color is its own flavor).
The fusion of tasty French bread and sweet, sugary toping has less obvious origins. We can’t help but wonder: can this combination be traced back to European colonists attempting to appeal more to indigenous tastes by adding extra sugar to their breads? Perhaps the cookie dough topping helped preserve the bread somehow, when preservation methods were far less advanced? Maybe it was just a matter of preference—after all, French bakers gleaned a lot from German techniques, which often involved the liberal application of streusels (a sort of cookie dough) on cakes and breads.
A version of this sugar-topped sweet bread is also found across the globe in Japan, where it is known as melonpan.
With the advent of globalization, it is, of course, quite possible that this sweet bread started with the concha in Mexico and later spread to Asia. But according to bread historian Steven L. Kaplan and culinary historian Linda Civitello, it is perhaps more likely that melonpan and conchas—despite their similarities—originated on different continents independently of one another. Civitello suggests that both iterations are, nevertheless, part of the “Iberian peninsula diaspora . . . when the Portuguese sailed east, the Spanish sailed west.”
And that’s a pretty apt suggestion: as the Spanish were invading the Americas in the early 1500s, the Portuguese likewise invaded Japan. The neighboring European countries implemented similar wheat-based bread-baking techniques, most likely using a broad range of recipes to assimilate their respective colonies to wheat, despite Japan’s indigenous preference for rice and Mexico’s preference for corn.
And although the concha has quite a long and impressive history—with generations of people knowing of its magical powers—only recently has it begun to gain traction in the upper echelon of the culinary world. Renowned bakers across the country are experimenting with its basic ingredients to yield super creative renditions. From sesame tahini to matcha green tea, there is a concha for every preference and taste.
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