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All About the Malasada, Hawai‘i's Favorite Fried Treat

How a Portuguese recipe became a Hawaiian icon.

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Hawaiian cuisine is a melting pot of local and imported flavors. While not as well recognized as say Japanese-fusion food culture, a small Portuguese enclave on the islands has made lasting impact on Hawaiian food with one sweet fried dough import — the malasada. Here is a primer on the popular doughnut and its origins.

What are malasadas?

Malasadas, as they are known in Hawaii, are a yeast-leavened doughnut enriched with eggs, butter, and sometimes evaporated or fresh milk. After frying, they are rolled in sugar. Though a traditional malasada is ungarnished, on the island they can be found with all manner of filling including plain custard and coconut-flavored haupia pudding.

Malasadas at Punaluu Bake Shop. [Shutterstock/Robert Crow]

Where are they from?

Malasadas are said to be a speciality of the island of São Miguel, an island in the Azores that was first settled by the Portuguese in 1427. The name, sometimes spelled malassadas means "poorly cooked," a reference to the almost crisp, sugary exterior contrasted by a soft, doughy crumb.

Dessert historian Michael Krondl attributes the tradition of doughnut making in Portugal to techniques picked up during Muslim occupancy of the region. The country has several styles of doughnut, but Krondl contends that malasadas are distinguished from Portugal's other fried dough preparations by their round shape and lack of additional aroma or flavor.

Cinnamon sugar malasada [Flickr/Arnold Gatilao]

According to Ana Patuleia Ortins, author of Authentic Portuguese Cooking: More Than 185 Classic Mediterranean-Style Recipes of the Azores, Madeira and Continental Portugal, whether you use the word "malasada" depends on your location, with the word "filhoses" or "fritter" sometimes being used to describe the same item. But, as a general rule:

"... filhos of Graciosa will be shaped like a doughnut and they have been called 'Portuguese doughnuts.' Malassadas, like those of São Miguel, are pieces of dough stretched into triangles, squares or rounds."

How did malasadas get to Hawaii?

Due to increased need for labor in the sugar and pineapple industries during the 19th century, immigrant workers were welcomed to Hawaii. While the majority arrived from other parts of the Pacific, the Hawaiian government gave the most favorable contracts to workers from the Azores and Madeira who were already working with sugarcane on their home islands in the Atlantic. The skilled laborers brought with them the flavors and recipes of their home country.


What makes them special?

Based purely on appearance, the malasada might seem like any other yeast doughnut. The difference, as explained by Rachel Laudan in The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii's Cultural Heritage is in the dough: "What distinguishes the malasada from the everyday yeast doughnut is the eggy dough — about one egg to every cup of flour — and the use of milk or cream. In Hawaii, evaporated milk often stands in for fresh milk in this recipe as it does in so many others..."

Like paczki and king cake, the malasada's richness is a product of its Lenten origins. On Fat Tuesday, Catholics sought to use up all the fats and sugary ingredients in their stores ahead of Lent by preparing doughnuts, pancakes, and other indulgent desserts. Thus, in Hawaii, Mardi Gras is more fondly referred to as Malasada Day.

Homemade malasadas. [Facebook/Keith Fernandez]

Where to find them:

While malasadas are popular ahead of Lent, many bakeries offer them year-round. Here are a few places serving up the fried dough favorite.

Leonard's Bakery in Honolulu was opened by the son of Portuguese immigrants in 1952 and claims to be Hawaii's original malasada bakery.

Provincetown Portuguese Bakery's malasada is a more flattened, oblong version than the Hawaiian version sold at Leonard's. It does not come filled, but they will use it as the bread for an egg sandwich.

Macao Trading Company in NYC offers malasadas on their dessert menu, served with creme anglaise.

Watch Christina Tosi and Roy Choi make malasadas at Leonard's Bakery below: