The Peripatetic Malasada

Malasadas from Leonard’s Bakery, Honolulu, Hawai’i. Photo by Ashley L. Potvin.
January 8, 2020

Growing up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, I enjoyed a fried and sugarcoated pastry creation called a “malasada,” especially popular at the annual Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, the largest Portuguese cultural festival in the world, held in the heavily working class North End of New Bedford. While away at college, I missed malasadas and bragged about them incessantly. I was a malasada booster, a malasada chauvinist, but I lacked sharable proof. Malasadas don’t travel well. They are best eaten warm out of a paper bag that absorbs the excess grease.

This past November I visited the island of O’ahu to present at the National Humanities Conference with colleagues from the John Nicholas Brown Center. To my surprise, Hawai’i also claims the malasada as part of its culinary archive. To my dismay, they were spherical (and sometimes filled with custard or chocolate), rather than the flat creations with slightly crispy edges from my hometown, but they were still decidedly what I knew as “malasadas.” I wondered how they could exist as part of the cultural heritage of two such divergent places. In trying to answer this, I learned that it is a story of immigration, cultural survival, and edible imperialism.

Traditionally eaten in the Azores and Madeira during the Portuguese Carnival, malasada derives from the descriptor for “poorly cooked” (mal-assada). They were created with the intent of using all of a home’s lard and sugar in preparation for the asceticism of Lent. Malasadas might have first arrived in Hawai’i between 1878 and 1911, when more than more than 16,000 Portuguese immigrants, many of them from the colonies of Madeira and the Azores, arrived to work on sugar plantations. Madeira had a tradition of cultivating sugar cane, though much of the difficult manual labor was performed by enslaved Africans. In Hawai’i, the Portuguese immigrants’ experience was valuable, and as Europeans, they received superior contracts than workers from Asia; this including an acre of land, better working conditions, and the possibility to serve as luna, or supervisors.

Most of the ingredients to prepare malasadas are no more indigenous to Hawai’i than the immigrants who brought the recipe. Hawai’i’s soil and climate resisted the widespread cultivation of wheat and other European grains, and so flour needed to be imported from the mainland. Butter, milk, and cooking grease required the raising of European cattle, which in turn required the destruction of indigenous landscapes to clear grazing lands. The only native ingredient may have been sugar, but cultivating and refining sugar cane on a large scale was a complicated and labor-intensive process. This resulted in a plantation bureaucracy, which eventually suppressed Indigenous culture, negated the Hawai’ian monarchy, and manipulated the United States government into an unconstitutional annexation in 1898.

In New Bedford—and in other industrial New England locations—immigrants from Madeira and the Azores began to arrive in significant numbers between 1910 and 1920. Most came to work in the textile mills, which appeared, beginning in the 1850s, along the Acushnet River; by the beginning of the twentieth century this area led the nation in production. Rather than laboring under the hot sun in sugar cane fields, New Bedford’s Portuguese textile workers stood at large, noisy, and dangerous machines for up to twelve hours per day, performing repetitive tasks, and living in crowded tenements known as “three-deckers.”

A second wave of Portuguese immigrants to New Bedford, arriving after the passage of the 1965 U.S. Immigration Act, mostly came to work in the city’s booming fishing industry. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, approximately sixty percent of New Bedford’s population was of Portuguese descent. One thing they shared in common with their immigrant counterparts in Hawai’i was a “commitment to a better way of life in their adopted home and a desire to maintain cultural and aesthetic ties with their native land as well” (Heath, 168). This commitment was represented, in part, by the malasada.

Using the globular Hawai’ian malasada as a model, we can imagine the linear transmission of the pastry from Portugal to its Atlantic colonies, and then in separate waves of immigration to Hawai’i and industrial New England. However, it is also possible that the malasada hitched an earlier ride on earth’s largest sea creature. In the nineteenth century, New Bedford was the most prolific whaling seaport in the world. Overhunting pushed Yankee whalers to remote parts of the globe, to the distant North Atlantic and around Cape Horn to the islands of the Pacific. Whaling vessels often stopped in the Azores and Hawai’i to take on provisions and crew. In Moby Dick, the diverse workers on the Pequod included a Native American, an African, and a Pacific Islander. Whaling ports became cosmopolitan crossroads. By the middle of the century, twenty percent of the crews on New Bedford whaling vessels were Pacific Islanders.

In this telling, it becomes impossible to say where the malasada landed first, in Massachusetts or Hawai’i. The spread of malasadas becomes less linear than organic, spreading throughout the Atlantic and Pacific worlds like the way that malasada dough in New Bedford is stretched before being placed in the hot oil.

Recommended reading:

Dawn E. Duensing, “Hawai’i’s Forgotten Crop: Corn on Maui, 1851-1951,” The Hawaiian Journal of History, vol. 42 (2008).

Catherine Toth Fox,” Hawaii's rainbow of cultures and how they got to the Islands,” Hawai’I Magazine, September 26, 2017, accessed November 21, 2019, https://www.hawaiimagazine.com/content/hawaiis-rainbow-cultures-and-how-they-got-islands.

Kingston Wm. Heath, The Patina of Place: The Cultural Weathering of a New England Industrial Landscape, 1st ed. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001).

Josh Ocampo, “How malasada, a Portuguese sugar donut, became Hawaii’s favorite dessert,” Mic, October 29, 2018, accessed November 21, 2019, https://www.mic.com/articles/192125/malasada-a-portuguese-sugar-donut-became-hawaiis-favorite-dessert.

Joe Silvia, “Foodie’s Guide to Regional Gastronomy: The Malasadas–Portugal’s Glorious Version of Fried Dough,” New Bedford Guide, March 16, 2017, accessed November 21, 2019, https://www.newbedfordguide.com/foodies-guide-gastronomy-malasadas/2017/03/16

 “Polynesian/Hawaiians,” New Bedford Whaling, National Park Service, accessed November 21, 2019, https://www.nps.gov/nebe/learn/historyculture/polynesian-hawaiians.htm.

“Azorean Whaleman Gallery,” New Bedford Whaling Museum, accessed November 21, 2019, https://www.whalingmuseum.org/explore/exhibitions/current/azorean-whaleman-gallery.


Ron M. Potvin is Assistant Director and Curator at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage and Adjunct Lecturer in American Studies at Brown University.