When most people think of doughnuts, they picture a ring of deep-fried dough with a hole in the middle (an innovation that came courtesy of a ship captain named Hanson Gregory in the mid-19th century), maybe topped with glaze or something equally sweet. But depending on where you are in the world, these tasty treats have evolved into different shapes, sizes, and flavors altogether.
The Dutch are given credit for introducing the doughnut to America in the New Amsterdam settlement, a precursor to modern-day New York City. Oliebollen—which means “oil balls”—are a New Year’s Eve treat in The Netherlands. They fit in the palm of the hand and often contain raisins, apples, or currants.
The first mention of this jelly-filled doughnut was recorded in Kuchenmeisterei (or Mastery of the Kitchen), a 15th-century German cookbook that was translated into Polish in the 1500s. By the 17th century, Polish Jews were including the doughnuts, then called paczki (Polish) or ponchiks (Yiddish), in Hanukkah festivities. When they emigrated to Israel, they brought ponchiks with them; the treats were renamed sufganiyot. Sufganiyot were named an official Hanukkah treat by Histadrut, an Israeli labor organization, in the 1920s. Their reasoning? Unlike other Hanukkah foods like latkes that could be made at home, sufganiyot created jobs in the baking industry.
These days, these squarish, amply-sugared doughnuts are synonymous with New Orleans, but it’s likely their ancestors date back to at least 16th-century France, where they were prepared and served during Mardi Gras. (They may have come to France from the Andalusia region of Spain when it was under Islamic rule.) There are a few theories as to how beignets made their way to New Orleans: One has it that the Ursulines nuns, who arrived in the city in 1727, brought the doughnut with them, while some believe the doughnuts made their way south from Canada. However they got there, the tasty treats came to New Orleans in the 18th century.
These golden-fried sticks are a popular breakfast treat in China and are often paired with soy milk. According to folklore, youtiao were created during the Southern Song Dynasty as a curse upon Chancellor Qin Hui and his wife for falsely imprisoning (and later executing) a general. The pieces of dough were, at that time, human-shaped—with one representing Qin Hui and one his wife—and joined together, but eventually, the doughnut lost its shape and became two pieces of long dough that are intertwined. The Cantonese name for the treat, Yàuhjagwái, translates to “oil fried devil.”
Said to have originated with Spain’s Morisco population and brought over to the Americas by Spanish conquistadors, buñuelos are enjoyed across much of Latin America, especially during Christmastime. In Mexico, buñuelos are flat and are covered with cinnamon and piloncillo syrup, while in Nicaragua, they contain yucca and cheese. In Cuba, they are also prepared with yucca but include anise and get twisted into shapes resembling figure eights.
6. Sel Roti
In Nepal, this hoop-shaped sweet bread is a celebratory food enjoyed during the festivals of Tihar and Dashain as well as on special occasions. It’s made by grinding rice soaked overnight into a paste (or using rice flour instead) and mixing in ingredients including ghee, sugar, and cardamom. The batter is then poured in a circular shape into hot oil to cook.
This puffy fried bread is popular in East Africa and Zanzibar, as a snack or part of breakfast. Triangular in shape, mandazi is prepared with flour, cardamom, dry yeast or baking powder, and milk or coconut milk and then is fried. It’s sometimes served with bharazi, a dish of pigeon peas in coconut sauce.
8. Bolas de Fraile
This Argentinian doughnut’s name has some interesting translations, including “Friar's Balls" and “Balls of Weakness”— monikers that have political undertones. This round doughball is dusted with sugar and also has a filling, usually dulce leche; it’s thought that bolas de fraile is based on a German doughnut called the Berliner.
The origins of these classic treats are murky. According to one theory, churros are modeled after youtiao and came to Spain from China by way of Portuguese sailors; another is that they might have been invented by nomadic Spanish shepherds. What does seem likely is that the Spanish conquistadors brought churros to the New World; when they returned, they brought cacao back with them, which eventually led to churros being paired with chocolate sauce. Churros remain popular in Mexico and other parts of Latin America and the United States.
Primarily connected to Tuscany, but also found in other regions of Italy, this round and fluffy treat is adorned with a sugary icing and filled with chocolate, Nutella, jam, or crème patissière. What also makes this doughnut unique is that its filling slightly peeks out at the top. It takes its name from the Italian word bomba (or the plural, bombe), which means “bomb.”
There are two versions of this South African doughnut—whose name is derived partly from the Dutch word koekje—and each reflects a different culture. The Afrikaner variation is braided, cooked in hot oil, then immersed in a cold syrup, giving it a crispy and sweet texture. The other is a Cape Malay spiced pastry that’s more cake-like and round with a shredded coconut dusting.
These Austrian apricot jam doughnuts are similar to Berliners and are often enjoyed as a special treat during Vienna’s pre-Lenten Carnival season. Legend has it that we have an argument to thank for their creation: Supposedly, Cäcilie Krapf, a Viennese cook who worked in the royal court, got frustrated with her husband and tossed a piece of dough at him; he ducked, and the dough fell into hot oil instead.