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Conchas are, undoubtedly, the most popular and best known pastry in the vast collection of Mexican sweet breads (pan dulce); they are round buns with a light texture and a characteristic crumbly top layer, scored to resemble a seashell (concha, in Spanish). This top layer may be white, sometimes flavoured with cinnamon (as pictured above), or coloured (pink, yellow or, for example, brown from the addition of cocoa powder):
It is well accepted that many Mexican pastries have a French influence, which is maybe evident in conchas, with their light brioche-like crumb, probably developed sometime in the 19th century. However, it is worthwhile noting that wheat was introduced in the Spanish colonies, specifically in Mexico, soon after the conquest was completed, way back in the 16th century and that, just a few decades later, convents and Spanish homes had taken the challenge of reproducing loaves of bread, savoury buns and some pastries, following traditional Spanish recipes, even before panaderías (bakeries) had been created in the New Spain.
Spanish confectionery has a rich history of its own. In 711 BC, Moor armies trounced the Iberian peninsula entering from Northern Africa, and the subsequent occupation and rule of different regions in what is now Spanish soil, extended for around 800 years; cultural, language and culinary exchanges were a natural part of the process. Sweet delicacies enriched with almonds and dry fruit, as well as thin phyllo pastry, were introduced, adopted, and then adapted to create new flavours and textures. The Moors also brought sugar to Spain, having the knowledge of how to refine sugar cane by the 9th century, which changed the art of confectionery in Spain. In 1492, after the end of the Moorish occupation, a new era began, with Spain’s homecoming as a powerful kingdom, expanding towards the East, looking for new routes to control the Spice Route, which in turn led to the discovery of the New World.
Although pastries, and bread in general, were geared to the upper and governing classes in the colonies, once the Spaniards established sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean, it became a commodity that slowly replaced the use of honey, and opened a wider market in Mexico. For the same reason, the once ceremonial cocoa elixir of the Aztecs (Mexica) was transformed into hot chocolate, with the addition of sugar, and it was just a matter of time before a piece of pan dulce was dunked in the foamy beverage to become a staple at the Mexican table.
Pan quemao (pan quemado, also known as toña, fogaceta, and during Easter season mona), is a traditional Spanish sweet bread, particularly from Valencia and Murcia. The dough is light and shaped as domes, covered in egg wash and sprinkled with coarse granulated sugar (photo below, left); during the Easter season, these breads are decorated sometimes with a hard boiled egg, or the egg whites for the topping are beaten to form a meringue, then sprinkled with granules of sugar, which creates more of an extra layer, not unlike conchas (photo below, right, these images from Wikipedia Commons):
A Mexican pastry, made with the same dough as conchas, is the chilindrina, also shaped as a dome, but topped with a thick sweet paste and sprinkled with lumpy granules of sugar:
Is it possible that pan quemao was the original source for chlindrina and concha recipes, then enriched and transformed into a brioche-like pastry later on? French bakeries existed in Mexico since at least the early 1800s, as confirmed by the name of “The Pastry War” (Guerra de los pasteles, o Primera intervención francesa en México) to refer to the first French Intervention in Mexico in 1838, under allegations of Mexico’s government unpaid debt to French businesses and in particular, a pastry store. The Second French intervention in the 1860s, and the preference for everything European by Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz during his rule (1884-1910) certainly cemented the French influence in Mexican confectionery. Although it is impossible to confirm, I think the Spanish contributions to Mexican baked goods must not be forgotten.
The Youngest Conchas – Sometime at the end of the 20th century or the beginning of this one, a variation of the classic concha started to appear in Mexican restaurants. Instead of scoring the topping to look like a shell, it was left intact, as a white blanket on top of the bun. They are now a standard offering, and are called conchas modernas – modern conchas:
And to wrap up this Asian Heritage month, I would like to mention some concha look-alikes in Asian countries:
Melon pan (meron pan, メロンパン), are Japanese pastries that also have a fluffy texture and a sweet topping, although it is generally crispier than the one on conchas, scored to resemble melon peel:
These buns also have an obscure background story; they definitely came from the West, since wheat is an exotic grain in Japan. Generally they are attributed a Portuguese origin, since explorers from Portugal were the first Europeans to make it to the Islands in 1543. However, Japan went through an isolationist era from 1635 until 1853. Spain was one of the first European nations to re-establish trade treaties with Japan, and one of the theories for the name melon (besides looking like one, which was considered a very elegant fruit) is that the word “meron” derived from “meringue”, which was placed on top of the bread dough before being baked; does not that sound just like a pan quemao? Portuguese, Spanish, or otherwise, most food historians think that this bun developed independently from the Mexican concha.
The Chinese pineapple bun first appeared in Hong Kong in the 1940s; these buns are called “pineapple” because the crusty topping looks like a pineapple fruit. There is no confirmed origin story, some say it came from the Japanese melon pan.
Another bun in Hong Kong is actually called “Mexican bun” and it was modelled after the concha; the recipe was brought back by Chinese nationals during their massive deportation from Mexico in the 1930s and 40s.
The Korean soboro bun, with a peanut flavoured streusel topping, was most likely inspired by the melon bun.
Last, but not least, the Malaysian Rotyboy™, created in the 1990s, it looks like a modern concha, but with a coffee flavoured topping.
It is remarkable how these sweet buns have been incorporated into the culture of so many countries, particularly since their grain staples remained unchanged, namely, corn for Mexico and rice for Asian nations. I guess it only took a spoonful or two of sugar to unchain their sweet surrender to bread.