A report by Tim Padgett for WLRN.
This month, when you walk into a Colombian café in Kendall called La Candelaria, you’re met by música decembrina. December music. Meaning, Colombian Navidad or Christmas music. Old-time cumbia favorites like “El Año Viejo.”
The fun part is when Colombians like Angela Upegui walk into La Candelaria – full of decembrina spirit – and start singing along. On a recent December afternoon, in fact, Upegui offered a heartfelt rendition of “Año Viejo” to rival Celia Cruz’s hit recording.
But Upegui didn’t come in for Christmas music. She was on a quest for one of the two things she says are essential to any Colombian Christmas.
“An important combination,” she told me. “Baby Jesus – with buñuelos.”
Buñuelos. Upegui walked up to La Candelaria’s bakery counter and pointed to a neat pile of brown, round pastries you might mistake for skee balls if you weren’t in a café. They’re not dripping with a gooey holiday glaze. In fact, they’re more salty than sweet. Just fried dough and cheese, really. And yet, Upegui declared:
“No buñuelos, no Christmas.”
You heard the woman. And she’s a paisa – someone from Colombia’s second-largest city, Medellín, where the most common Colombian buñuelo recipe originated.
The buñuelo, in fact, is one of the most popular Christmas foods not just for Colombians but a number of Latin American cultures. And yet outside the Latino community – even in South Florida – it’s generally unknown.
But the question I’ve always asked is: Why is a food so seemingly plain so loved in a season of sensory delights like Christmas?
“It’s delicious,” Upegui said, “and every Christmas all the family is very happy to celebrate with the buñuelo – in combination with the natilla.”
Did you catch that last part? Natilla. That’s the sweet stuff. Natilla is a Colombian custard also very popular at Christmas – especially if you pair it with buñuelos. So is hot chocolate. With a buñuelo.
You get the point. In December, the nondescript, everyday buñuelo assumes a more cherished role: the anchor of Christmas treats.
When Upegui sat down with her chocolate, natilla – and buñuelo – it was enough to make her break out singing more carols. But it’s also cause for some interesting – and unexpected – history.
The buñuelo wasn’t born in Colombia or anywhere in Latin America. It comes from Spain – but not from the Spanish.
It was most likely invented by the Moors – the Muslim Arabs who ruled medieval Spain for eight centuries.
“I’m familiar not only with my own Puerto Rican version of the buñuelo that I have tasted since I was a kid,” says Wilfredo Ruiz, Florida spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Sunrise. “But as a Muslim I found most people don’t know how far back it really goes.”
As Ruiz tells it, during a siege of Seville, Spain, in the 11th century, wood, coal and other oven fuels became scarce. So the ruler there asked his baker to find a more economical way to make bread.
“And so came that concept of frying bread,” says Ruiz. “This baker known as Abdel-aziz bin Drisi, he just put that dough into boiling oil. Like what we call today a donut hole?”
One theory holds the name “buñuelo” comes from puño, the Spanish word for the fist used to pound dough. Whatever the root, Spanish conquistadors brought them to Latin America – and Old World Muslims later brought them to Caribbean islands like Trinidad.
“It has international adaptations of the same concept,” Ruiz notes.
Especially within Latin America itself. In Puerto Rico buñuelos are more savory. In countries like Mexico they’re sweeter – often smothered in sugar, cinnamon or honey.
But few folks love them more at Christmas than Colombians do – especially in Miami, home to the U.S.’s largest Colombian community. On Southwest Eighth Street, near the Palmetto Expressway, Hector Cadavid can’t make enough of them right now at his bakery, Pandebono.
In fact, after I spoke with Cadavid I asked to buy one of his buñuelos. When he turned around:
“I’m all out,” he said. But he wasn’t surprised.
“The buñuelo may seem a simple thing,” Cadavid said. “But for us it means a cherished Colombian tradition.”
And in this age of holiday excess, it’s refreshing to see something as plain and humble as the buñuelo exalted as an iconic Christmas tradition. Such, after all, is the case with that other humble Christmas essential Upegui mentioned: Baby Jesus.