If you are a fan of Food Network’s Food Network Star competition, and you tuned in on June 15, you saw Lenny “The Cowboy Chef” McNab make a big mistake during his “Cutthroat Kitchen” heat, which required the contestants to make a breakfast plate. Lenny used masa, corn flour used to make corn tortillas, to make what seemed to be tortillas, but which he called sopaipillas (also spelled sopapilla).
Bobby Flay tried a bite of this “sopaipilla” and had to spit it out, later saying this was the first time during his tenure on Food Network that he ever had to spit food out. As if this wasn’t bad enough, Bobby gave Lenny the evil eye over his calling these apparently inedible corn meal discs “sopapillas.”
An expert on Southwest cuisine (supposedly), Bobby pointed out that sopaipilla was a pillowy fried bread. Lenny may have lost a lot of credibility (since this article was written he has lost much more credibility). But, if a sopaipilla is not a corn tortilla, and is a pillowy bread, what is it made of, and how is it made?
Well, sopaipilla first, is a type of fried bread made from wheat flour, and similar to many other fried breads found throughout the Southwest. The fried bread used in Navajo Tacos can be thought of as a type of sopaipilla, but they are bigger than what the type normally called sopapillas, which are in turn more puffy and hollow inside. They are a specialty of New Mexico, and while you might assume that the sopaipilla, like a lot of New Mexico’s food, comes from Mexico, in this case, although the ingredients are Spanish influenced, they belong to the region. In Mexican or Southwest themed restaurants throughout the Southwest, you might find similar unleavened, fried, pillowy breads called sopaipilla, which are crispy on the outside but soft on the inside with a big hollow space.
A similar bread in Mexico is called buñuelo. These are plate-sized sweet deep-fried flour tortillas. In New Mexico buñuelo are distinguished by shape, and they usually have a hole or indentation in the middle. On the other hand, this same shape is called a sopaipilla, who also enjoy buñuelos and torta frita. Most sources conflate them all under the heading of sopaipilla, which confuses things still more. There are so many variations on these fry-breads, it is hard to pin down the various cultural streams that gave rise to each region’s names for them, or specific recipes, and it is extremely confusing to even try. There are endless debates on which bread came from where, and, in truth, not even expert scholars are sure. It is hard to ignore the similarities between the many different fried doughs or bread such as those mentioned, and the Utah scone, or even the beignet.
Sopaipilla is not a Spanish word. At least, it is not a word that survives in Spain today. Although it is often translated to “little pillow” but this does not explain the “sopa” part of the word. The likely origin is more interesting. The modern English word “supper” comes from a similar origin. The Late Latin suppa, referring to a piece of bred dipped in soup, sauce, or honey, which is probably actually of Germanic origin, coming from sop, which is comparable to the old English soppian, from which we get out modern expression “to sop,” referring to steeping or dipping something in a liquid. As in “to sop of your gravy with your bread.” So “suppa” described bread after it had been dipped in sauce or gravy. This became Hispanicized to “sopaipa” which became the modern diminutive form “sopaipilla.” Of course, we can’t ignore the “soup” connotation, and liquid soaked bread mixtures (also with lots of meats and vegetables, etc.) were very much a part of what the original “soups” were, before they became “refined” into a thin liquid mixture, or broth.
Sopaipillas are usually roughly triangular and about 5 to 6 inches wide, but many recipes call for smaller pillows, and they can be made in little squares or any other shape desired. Although they might be used in many different ways, such as filled with beans or meat like a pocket bread, or as a side bread to sop up sauce, the usual way to eat them is to break them open and drizzle on honey, perhaps with some butter as well, and serve as a dessert or an accompaniment. For dessert, they might be sprinkled with or rolled in sugar and cinnamon.
The sopaipilla and the Navajo fry bread are often described as the same thing, but the traditional Navajo fry bread did not use any lard in the bread dough itself, although lard was used to fry them. Most sopaipilla recipes use lard or shortening in the dough. Many recipes can be found on the web.