To celebrate Mardi Gras, we uncover the beignet’s widespread origins and its international popularity.
Fluffy dough, light powdered sugar, and crisp sweetness are synonymous with the beignet. This simple, deep-fried doughy treat is beloved around the world in its many different shapes and forms—one bite and you’re in pastry heaven.
Rewinding back in time, the precursor to the beignet can be traced all the way back to Ancient Rome. Consisting of moist dough dipped into boiling animal fat and then covered in honey, Ancient Romans called their sweet snack scriblita. Back then, March marked the start of the new year and Ancient Romans celebrated the beginning of a new agricultural year and Spring by tucking into sweet treats—including scriblita.
Around most of the world today the modern version of a scriblita goes by the unmistakable name of doughnut. But even before the doughnut took its iconic rounded shape, it was first square, made popular in France, and known as the beignet—a name that is still widely used today, especially in conjunction with Mardi Gras. The beignet’s history in intrinsically linked to the pre-Lent celebration of Mardi Gras.
After Ancient Roman times, beignets really took off in popularity alongside Christianity. As more religious celebrations and dates took over Roman ones, new traditions came into place. One of them included feasting on indulgent foods on Shrove Tuesday, also known as “Fat Tuesday” or “Mardi Gras”—the day before Lent, the religious fasting period.
On Mardi Gras, people made an effort to discard fattening ingredients from their pantries, including eggs, milk, sugar, and oil. They created small, doughy pieces that they deep-fried in oil before sprinkling with sugar. Thus, the beignet was born.
For religious reasons or not, Mardi Gras is still widely and colourfully celebrated on the last day of the festive period of Carnival, at the end of February or the start of March. This vibrant, fun-packed week of festivities takes place in many countries around the world, including Italy, France, Germany, Brazil, and many more. One of the most famous Mardi Gras celebrations today is hosted in New Orleans, where beignets are a signature pastry.
Thanks to these religious celebrations and the early European settlers who brought their traditions to North and South America, the beignet took part in the early globalisation movement, spreading across continents. From Ancient Roman times to today, the beignet took root in numerous countries.
Shifting in shape and size throughout the world, many countries have their own version and name for a beignet. Over the centuries, different cultures have celebrated various customs by making and feasting on beignets, indulging their taste buds in a sugary, powdery dream.
A WELL-TRAVELLED PASTRY
From Malaysia’s kuih keria to Germany’s berliners, and from Portugal and Hawai’i’s malasadas to Spain’s churros, not to mention Hong Kong’s ox-tongue pastry and Poland’s paczki—this pastry is a true international delight. The beignet in its square form is most famous in France and New Orleans, and in its round, holey form, in the rest of the USA.
Interestingly, most forms and recipes of beignets remain largely similar across countries. The main difference lies in their shape, texture, filling, and weight.
Beignets, for instance, are made with more yeast and fewer eggs than a typical doughnut recipe, so they tend to be a little puffier with a soft centre. Germany’s berliners, on the other hand, are filled with a tangy fruit jam. There’s truly something for everyone.
No matter what name, filling, shape, or size a beignet comes in, it’s an exquisite, sweet treat packed with history that adults and children around the world adore.