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Conchas: The Mexican Culinary Treat with a Loaded History


Conchas: The Mexican Culinary Treat with a Loaded History

Move over, churro; there’s another delicious symbol of Mexican heritage headed for a Latinx bakery near you.  The humble concha, a type of pan dulce (sweet bread) has a history as rich and complex as its flavor.  

To put it in colonized terms, a concha is like a sweet brioche bread topped with a delicate cookie decorated in the shape of a seashell.  Concha is the Spanish word for “shell.”  But we cannot deny the colonial history that made this treat possible.

A Brief History of Wheat in the New World

Wheat was introduced to Mexico in the early 1500s, just as Hernán Cortés was dealing a final blow to the Aztec Empire.  Legend holds that one conquistador, rewarded with a plot of land for his help in conquering the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, planted 3 grains of wheat he found when cleaning rice brought to feed the Spanish army.  Only one grain germinated, but that one was enough to spread wheat across Mexico.  Before long, Old World staples thrived alongside indigenous crops like maize at many haciendas.  

Artwork depicting two Conquisttadors meeting two Aztec natives
Unsigned 16th century engraving of Aztecs meeting Hernán Cortés and Juan Garrido, the African conquistador who first cultivated wheat in Mexico

History is full of atrocities  But it is just as filled with people who devote their lives to making the best of the situations in which they live.  Initially, many indigenous people refused to grow or even eat wheat.  It was a symbol of Spanish oppression and the destruction of their culture.  In time, though, and sometimes by force, they accepted European practices, products, and marriages.  

As Pablo Neruda wrote, “They carried off the gold and left us the gold . . . They carried everything off and left us everything . . .” Neruda referred to the Conquistadors looting and razing the land, while leaving behind the beautiful Spanish language, but he could very well have been talking about the food.  With European recipes and sometimes native ingredients, Mexican people learned to bake.  In the 19th century, they learned to bake conchas.

Back to Brioche

A concha has two vital parts.  The base is a rich and yeasty, mildly sweet bread that can, admittedly, be compared to brioche.  It takes a lot of kneading, rising, more kneading, then more rising.  There’s a lot of downtime, which leaves opportunities for playing fútbol and making tortillas.  But there’s also time to make the other vital part:  the topping.  Roll out a thin, sugary, unleavened dough, cut circles to drape over unbaked bases, and score in that distinctive shape reminiscent of a seashell.  Bake, and voila–er, !ahí está!  Soft and spongy, with a crisp and whimsical top.  Conchas!  

Close up of a concha
Up close and personal of a delicious concha. Photo courtesy of the author.

Traditionally, the cookie topping is flavored with vanilla, chocolate, or cinnamon, and it may be brightly colored with food coloring.  But many panaderias may experiment with other flavors, such as lemon, rose, orange, and cardamom.  The concha is a blank slate, ripe for creative expression.

It Doesn’t Need the Cronut Treatment

However, for my tastes and leanings, I don’t need to see the iconic concha subjected to Americanization like so many other traditional foods.  Walk into any local Whole Foods, and you’ll find shelves of round flatbreads being marketed as “wraps,” as though using a different name for a tortilla to hold your chicken Caesar salad after yoga class makes it any less of a burrito.  

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We all remember the cronut craze of 2013.  New York foodies stood in line for hours in the hopes of tasting a deep fried croissant.  Conchas don’t need that.  Conchas are good enough already.  They don’t need to be sliced open and stuffed with ice cream and Oreos.  They don’t need to be used as a bun for a shiitake, chorizo, and beef patty topped with homemade strawberry–fig jam, chipotle aïoli, pickled cucumbers, butter lettuce, bacon, tomato, and a fried egg.  That last one actually won the James Beard Foundation’s Blended Burger Project in 2016.

No, I want my conchas handed to me over a glass counter by someone’s abuelita, who was taught to make conchas by her abuelita, and who will teach her recipe only to her neitos.

Bakery storefront
Find a bakery that looks like this, Xochitl Bakery in El Paso, Texas. Photo courtesy of the author.

Conchas as Art

I may be a culinary concha purist, but I applaud their use in other contemporary expressions.  In 2018, El Paso, Texas artist Angel Cabrales made molds of actual pan dulce and recreated them in resin.  He then distributed them to other artists in the El Paso area, who modified them based on their own artistic visions.  An auction of the resulting artworks raised nearly $7000 for Annunciation House, an organization assisting immigrant families who have been separated from their children.

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