The Saga of the Indian Samosa
Nothing quite satisfies the growling depths of my empty stomach like the layered crunch of a vegetable samosa, fresh from the fryer; crisp and flaky pastry, giving way to a steaming cushion of fluffy potatoes and bright peas inside. I salivate as I write.
The samosa is, undoubtedly, one of India’s most favourite snacks. Typically triangular in shape, a semi-circular sheet of wheat flour pastry, such as filo, is crafted into a cone before a forkful of aromatic filling is shovelled inside. Then, a thick mixture of flour and water seals the final edge to create the iconic three-point shape.
But samosas didn’t make their way into the nation’s heart on their own. Across India, and in my own home, they are usually eaten with a side of refreshing chutney. Imli (tamarind), pootna (mint), ambh (mango) and narial (coconut) chutney are all excellent accompaniments, celebrated for their shared ability to be loaded in heaps atop each of the three corners, as well as for their own flavours.
Nothing quite satisfies the growling depths of my empty stomach…
It was during my travel across Punjab that I truly witnessed how deeply samosas were embedded into Indian culture. Like the Italian pizza or American hotdog, the samosa had taken over as one of the iconic symbols of Indian cuisine.
Under the sizzling summer rays, I watched a street vendor throw a tea towel over his shoulder and expertly release another handful of thick aloo-muttar* samosas into a vat of bubbling oil, before shouldering bucket-loads of mint chutney around to each of his crunching customers nearby. A quick snack would have cost them less than a dollar or a pound. For him, the business meant he could take care of his family and send his daughter to school.
…the samosa had taken over as one of the iconic symbols of Indian cuisine.
In another part of town, dozens of paneer samosas were artfully arranged on a large red and gold paisley-print platter and set at the centre of the table, alongside pakoras, jalebis** and china pots of Darjeeling tea. The Mehras were having a party tonight and wanted to make sure they pleased the perceptive tastes of their elaborately-dressed guests.
It therefore came as a great surprise for me to learn that the humble samosa’s fried disguise conceals its long journey from the Middle East.
Making waves from the Middle East
Originally beginning life as a ‘samsa,’ the immensely popular and well-travelled samosa journeyed through Central Asia, adopting the alternative names of ‘sambosa’ and ‘sambusak,’ along the way. Both variations stemmed from the Persian word, ‘sanbosag.’ During this time, the samosa was often filled with meat and in many houses, this is still the case. This meat-filled snack was easy to carry and eat, which was useful on long travels. Then, in the 13th or 14th century, it finally made its grand appearance on Indian dining tables, thanks to a group of Middle Eastern chefs. Historical accounts even suggest that the shape of the samosa differed to include a semi-circular pasty-style variety.
And that is why ‘the best samosa recipe,’ varies across India; the introduction of the samosa from other lands, allowed each Indian state to interpret the general recipe alongside familiar cooking methods and customise their samosa according to the meat and/ or vegetables available. So, for example, in Punjab, where fried food is the first love of most, potatoes and peas are a typical filling, encased by a thick crust of pastry. In contrast, in Gujarat, the patti samosa contains cabbage, as well as potato. In Bengal, the singara, as it is known, uses potatoes, peas, cauliflower and peanuts, for an extra crunch. On the other hand, in Karnataka, simple onion samosas are immensely poular with the locals.
…in the 13th or 14th century, it finally made its grand appearance on Indian dining tables, thanks to a group of Middle Eastern chefs.
Travelling the world
As a consequence of its adaptable crust and filling, the samosa has gone on to travel across the continent and through to the rest of the world. In some American and British eateries, chefs have creatively transformed the samosa entirely and dressed it for elegant fine dining, complete with a scrumptious chocolate filling.
The samosa may not have its source in India. Its recipe may not even have been imparted to the nation until years after its invention, but it remains a gift of my culture. The onion basket and china teacups in my house are stashed full of evergreen memories of my grandmother, mother and now nieces, rolling and pinching floury pastry into dainty shapes. On a grey morning, they wash forth like a strong current and it is for this reason that the Middle Eastern samosa couldn’t be more Indian to me.
— — — — — — — — —
*potato and pea
**a kind of saffron/turmeric-dyed sugar pretzel