Deep frying crosses cultures

September 01, 2009 02:04 pm

Last Christmas, my brother gave his girlfriend — they’ve been together for a year now — a Fry Daddy. When she went back to Mississippi for school where she’s studying to become a veterinarian, he cleaned out the bucket of the fry grease, packaged it securely and shipped it back to her from Hawaii, their home island, to the South. This is obvious true love.

For me deep-frying is a hazard though. At 5 feet tall, my face is too close to the stove top and the hot oil. I’ve tried standing on a stool to get my eyes farther away from the boiling vat, but being on a movable stool isn’t very safe when deep frying either. I’ve got super long chopsticks that are my best bet for staying unscathed while deep frying, but though I can reach with them, I can’t necessarily see what I’m reaching because I move my body to the side to avoid splatters. So I don’t really deep fry. If anything, Lucas, the 6-footer, must do it the few times we attempt it a year.

There are other dangers in deep frying. Splattering oil can make a tile floor slick. And once, several years ago, my aloe plant, which had been thriving on a shelf above the stove, got covered in oil vapor and it is still recovering.

Deep-fried foods get a bad rap. It’s one of the first things to be cut out of a person’s diet when they’re restricting themselves. I get it. It has a reputation for not being refined as if only the uncouth eat it and then wipe their greasy fingers on their pant legs. That deep-fried foods aren’t the healthiest choice is true. I’m no snob though.

I don’t eat deep fried very often, just because these are not everyday foods for me, but I won’t give it up.

There’s something about “crispy.” It’s a taste experience which includes sound (crunch) and texture like you are eating topography. A well-fried thing has beautiful color, sometimes described as golden.

What beats the deep-fried rolled envelope, lumpia? I was lucky enough to have a lot of neighbors and friends who were Filipino, so we often got lumpia. And always expertly made and tightly rolled although they never came from restaurant families, just regular home cooks. Good lumpia, wrapped in a thin skin wrapper, crunches through crisp layers to a just-juicy-enough pork mixture scented with patis.

Tempura can be good too, but the batter has to be right and the fillings not so moist that it dissolves the crispness of the fried batter.

Considered Japanese, according to Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking,” tempura has Portuguese — a historically Catholic people — origins. Tempura comes from the word tempora, a period of time for fasting. During these periods, like in Lent, one must refrain from indulgences, especially red meat. Tempura was an acceptable dish during Lent.

I like a batter so thin it is rippled and you can see the color and shape of the food inside. More bread-like batters can absorb oil quickly if the oil isn’t hot enough and eating an oil-filled sponge isn’t nice at all.

Another Portuguese deep-fried specialty is malasadas. In Hawaii, Leonard’s Bakery in Kapahulu is famous for malasadas. When I was in the area recently, the little shop was packed with the line spilling outside. I think they are usually sold out before closing time.

Malasadas are a sweet dough, shaped into small fist-sized balls and deep fried until a rich brown.

Then, they are rolled in sugar. The outside is a thin crisp layer and inside, almost cotton candy texture of sweet bread. You can find some malasadas that are more dense, more chewy, with less air in the pastry. Is this because they are fried at lower heats, generating less steam? I have no idea. Both versions are good, but I like Leonard’s ethereal version best. I had a malasada in Cape Cod in Massachusetts this summer too. It was really different than what I’m used to. It was flat, kind of the size of a Danish, and there seemed to be more butter in the dough. The outer crust was slightly layered, almost like a croissant. They kept selling out too.

According to “Madeiran Cooking,” a community-style cookbook put out by The Museum of Madeiran Heritage at New Bedford, Mass., malasadas were created in the late 1800s and were given to kids on Halloween. Also, malasadas are Fat Tuesday food. On Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, when dietary restrictions must start for Catholics during Lent, people make malasadas, an indulgent ball of dough.

A similar fried dessert bread is the Okinawan andagi. Though I’m a proud Portuguese girl, I almost like andagi better than malasadas. Andagi are purposefully dense, more a donut than a pastry. They are much smaller than malasadas, about as big as a donut hole, and not rolled in sugar.

My nieces’ grandmother makes andagi like an expert. Deep frying is hard. How do you know what temperature to keep the oil and once you have that figured out, how do you brave being so near the boiling pot? Good andagi, which has been immersed in hot, hot oil, is not oily when it’s done. There’s a subtle sweetness to them and a denseness that neither crumbles nor gets sticky, returning to dough.

They are bite size, so it’s easy to eat four, or more, at one sitting. According to my nieces’ mother, Berna, she likes her mom’s andagi a few days after they are fresh. They get better a little aged. How exciting.

Andagi are often sold at local festivals, fairs and community celebrations in Hawaii. The giant vat of oil they are fried in is intimidating with seasoned rings of dark amber oil around the rim and outside of the pot that looks like a year’s worth of wrack lines.

I loved going to the Okinawan Festival in Hawaii as a little girl and watching the andagi formed methodically by squeezing the dough through the fingers between the thumb and forefinger. Formed this way, some of the dough is pushed into the tiny spaces and creases in the hand. When these andagi are cooked, the small ridges fry a little faster and are slightly more crunchy.

I remember watching the little dough balls fry, the cooks turning them over and bathing them in oil as they turned from pale to a dark gold.

That may be the only thing I remember of the festival.

Eden Kruger is the news assistant at The Observer. Reach her at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it