The Story behind the Sopaipilla | New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs

The Story behind the Sopaipilla

Sopaipillas, Greg Holland.

By Alex La Pierre

Indulging in piping hot and hollow pillows of fried dough with sweet amber honey is a requisite to finishing a chile-rich traditional New Mexican meal. The sopaipilla exists as a veritable culinary touchstone of Southwestern cuisine, remarkable for its dual functionality as both a meal-accompanying form of bread (that is even stuffable) and as a staple dessert. Beneath the gastronomic surface of sopaipillas satisfying simplicity is a fascinating history reflective of the diverse peoples who came to leave significant cultural imprints upon this American region.

The sopaipilla medium of wheat as well as the deep-frying cooking technique are excellent examples of both foreign material and immaterial culture arriving in the Southwest from Spain as a part of the Columbian exchange. Sopaipillas are likely the North American descendent of the olive oil fried dough called sopaipas today in the Andalusian city of Cordoba in southern Spain. Spanish colonial settlers to New Mexico imported a late-medieval culture comprised of the post-reconquista tatters of what has been termed by historians as a diverse convivencia between Muslims, Jews and Christians. Its tripartite Iberian epicenter was in Cordoba and this cultural mixing or mestizaje resulted in this gastronomic grandparent of sopaipillas, sopaipas cordobesas.

At the time of Spanish settlement in New Mexico in 1598 those known as buneleros in Spain, trade specialists in fried wheat dough cooking (churros, bunuelos and beyond) were uniquely acknowledged to be the profession of Moors. With roots in North Africa and Arabia, these adherents of the Muslim faith were widely forced into Roman Catholic baptism as the population remaining from a 700 year long Islamic era in Spain that ended in 1492 with the fall of Granada by the Catholic monarchs. In the Spanish language this cultural group was known under various terms such as moriscos, mudéjares, conversos and cristianos nuevos.

The presence of crypto-Jewish Spanish settlers has been widely recognized in New Mexico and confirmed via modern genetic testing. Perhaps the presence of sopaipillas in New Mexico is a gastronomic confirmation for an equally likely diaspora of Moors to New Mexico, similarly fleeing the inquisition, as the ones to introduce their fritter friendly cultural roots into the colonial Southwest.

The later transmission of fry bread into a traditional food of Native Americans in the region appears to be an adaptation of their Hispano neighbors sopaipillas as well as being indicative of the commodities of lard and flour made available to Native Americans as a result of American government forced interments in places such as Bosque Redondo. The widespread indigenous acceptance of this foreign fritter also indicates the practicalities of frontier necessity. The mobility of certain nomadic indigenous tribes certainly precluded the availability of stationary ovens from which to bake leavened breads and potentially contributed to its rise as a quick, popular indigenous food and cousin to sopaipillas to this day.

If you find yourself in Cordoba, Spain be sure to visit Soledad, proprietress of Mojaelchurro, an Andalusian shrine to fried dough in all its conceptions including sopaipas cordobesas. 

New Mexico CulturePass

Your ticket to New Mexico's exceptional Museums and Historic Sites.
From Indian treasures to space exploration, world-class folk art to awesome dinosaurs—our museums and monuments celebrate the essence of New Mexico every day.
More Info »

The wallet size version of the CulturePass showing the $30 price

Cultural Atlas of New Mexico Mobile App

Where do you belong?
The Cultural Atlas of New Mexico leads you to historic and cultural places throughout the Land of Enchantment. Organized by region, proximity and interest, the Cultural Atlas will help you find where you belong.

Get it on Google Play

Featured DCA Exhibitions

A photo featuring items representing the Between the Lines: Prison Art & Advocacy | A Community Conversation exhibition

Between the Lines: Prison Art & Advocacy | A Community Conversation

Along with exploring exhibition themes, aesthetics, materials and artists, visitors will have the opportunity to
more »

A photo featuring items representing the Working on the Railroad exhibition

Working on the Railroad

Working on the Railroad pays tribute to the people who moved the rail industry throughout New Mexico. Using nearly
more »

A photo featuring items representing the The Massacre of Don Pedro Villasur exhibition

The Massacre of Don Pedro Villasur

This exhibition features 23 original graphic history art works by Santa Fe-based artist Turner Avery Mark-Jacobs. This
more »

A photo featuring items representing the Here, Now and Always exhibition

Here, Now and Always

The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture invites you to visit its brand new permanent exhibition, Here, Now and Always,
more »