Monthly Archives: May 2011

S is for Samosa

S is for Samosa

If thou wouldst know what food gives most delight,

Best let me tell, for none hath subtler sight.

Take first the finest meat, red, soft to the touch,

And mince it with the fat, not overmuch;

Then add an onion, cut in circles clean,

A cabbage, very fresh, exceeding green, 

Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Mawsilí, the celebrated Persian singer and poet from the 9th century, had also an eye for good food. He likely penned the praise poem for the samosa after a day of feasting at the court table of the Abbasid Caliph Haroun al-Rashid. Al Rashid was a lover of all things cultural, the finest poets and choicest ingredients alike.

And season well with cinnamon and rue;

Of coriander add a handful, too,

And after that of cloves the very least,

Of finest ginger, of pepper best,

Al-Rashid has been lionized in stories from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, but he is best remembered for his exquisite taste and determination to enhance the court at Baghdad with riches from across the massive empire that he ruled. The Abbasid Caliphate extended from the Atlantic Ocean to what is now Turkmenistan, from the Black Sea in the Persian North to India in the South.  Al-Rashid brought talents from East and West to his court: learned men, poets, jurists, grammarians, scribes, wits and musicians. At his court table, he lavished guests with gifts and introduced them to his sugar from Khuzestan, the finest pomegranate jam, white honey, rosewater, dates, and caraway seeds.

A hand of cumin, murri just to taste.
Two handfuls of Palmyra salt; but haste
Good master, haste to grind them small and strong.
Then lay and light a blazing fire along;
It was tradition on most days at court that poet musicians vied to present the most outstanding lyrics, hoping to be the recipient of the gifts Harun bestowed on his favorites. Perhaps this day al-Mawsilí had his first bite of what Persians called Sambosag, and early version of the samosa. Or maybe that day he tasted a particularly fragrant example, with the pastry roasted just so, the pepper from India, and the ginger from China. Perhaps he wrote thirty lines in jest. Since when do courtly poets write praise poems for so humble a snack?

Put all in the pot, and water pour

Upon it from above, and cover o’er.

But, when the water vanished is from sight

And when the burning flames have dried it quite,

Far from the courts of any Caliph or Mogul, the samosa né sambosag was first prepared by traders from the steppes in Central Asia at the very edge of al-Rashid’s empire. These semi-nomads needed foods they could pack and carry during long journeys across the Silk Route. They prepared the savory, bite-sized pastries over campfires and the next day dropped them into saddlebags for safe keeping on the road.

Then, as thou wilt, in pastry wrap it round,

And fasten well the edges, firm and sound;

Or, if it please thee better, take some dough,

Conveniently soft, and rubbed just so,

Since then the samsa, as it was called there, has not stopped its journey, and there are possibly as many variations of savory pastries as there are countries today. In Turkmenistan and other parts of Central Asia the samsa is often a rough pastry filled with ground meat or pumpkin, greens and herbs. In the Arab world, the sambusak or sambusaj is traditionally filled with meat and onions, punctuated by sweet almonds or raisins. Sweet versions contain ground almonds, dates and walnuts with rose or orange blossom water. Iraqi Jews brought to Israel the boureka made with a light and flaky puff pastry. Samosas are found across Africa, too, and food historians have found links between the samsa and the Latin empanada.

Then with the rolling pin, let it be spread

And with the nails its edges docketed.

Pour in the frying-pan the choicest oil

And in that liquor let it finely broil.

The humble samsa cast its influence wider than al-Rashid himself. But today it is most familiar in its Indian incarnation, the samosa. The samosa is so widely known and devoured that in Arab restaurants in the West you won’t often find sambusaj or sambusak, but you can order a samosa.

In India samosas are just as diverse. The plump, Punjabi samosa resembles Persian varieties in that you can find it stuffed with potatoes, pomegranates and raisins. In Bihar, ginger and green chilis are the predominant seasonings. In Rajasthan you’ll find dal, or lentil, samosas, and in the South you’ll find daintier onion samosas which South Indians call, Samsa.

Last, ladle out into a thin tureen

Where appetizing mustard smeared hath been,

And eat with pleasure, mustarded about,

This tastiest food for hurried dinner-out.

The Bengali shingara is merely another incarnation of a universally loved food, simple, but in possession of a far-reaching history. Though it is my favorite, by far. Nothing is better than its melt-in-your mouth pastry, its mix of cauliflower and potato filling and a finish of Bengali panch phoran. Here is one Bengali-inspired recipe  published in a recent issue of Upper Crust, India’s premier food and style magazine. It’s a great resource for looking beyond the standard travel and food guides. The recipe is provided in metric weights and measurements. A convenient conversion calculator can be found here.


1 kg potatoes, 2 kg cauliflower
100 gm green peas (shelled)
5 gm black salt*
1 gm cardamom, 1 gm cinnamon
5 gm whole coriander*
7 gm cumin seeds, 1 gm nutmeg
5 gm red chilli whole, 7 gm aniseed
2 bay leaves, sugar to taste
500 gm maida*, 500 ml oil
1 kg ghee, a few green chillies
20 gm cashewnuts, salt to taste

For the stuffing:
Collect all spices and broil lightly. Grind into a powder.
Peel and cut potatoes in small dices, wash and cut the cauliflower in to small florets.
Heat oil in a kadhai, fry the cauliflower and set aside.
Fry the potatoes and set aside.
Fry the green peas and set aside.
Mix together the potatoes, cauliflower, green peas, spice mix and green chillies.
Add the black salt and adjust seasoning to make a tasty stuffing.

For the dough:
Mix the flour, 100 gm ghee, salt and water to make a soft pliable dough.
Divide the dough in 15 roundels.
Roll each roundels in an oval shape and cut into two, enough to make a shingara wrapper.

For the shingara:
Shape each wrapper into a cone and fill in the stuffing. Seal edges by pinching them together to make a shingara shape.
Heat the remaining ghee in a kadhai to smoking point.
Reduce the heat and slow fry the shingara till the exterior is cooked and takes on colour.
Serve hot.

* Black salt is a pungent, blackish-pink salt used in Indian cooking. You can find it a South Asian grocery stores locally and online. In North American, whole coriander is commonly known as cilantro. Maida is a refined, wheat flour in Indian. It can be purchased at South Asian grocery store, but you can also substitute it with cake flour or all-purpose flour.

These days it is the samosa that inspires poetry, from mimicry – “Oh, my luve is like a deep brown samosa,” – to this 21st century love story by Nilesh Patel. Make a batch of shingara. Sit down, watch, and enjoy.

Note: The poem by Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al- Mawsilí is from Masudi’s Meadows of Gold, translated by Arberry in Islamic Culture, 1939


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R is for Revolution

As I type this post today, my future mother-in-law sits at home, despondent. Last weekend her arch nemesis won state elections in West Bengal. It’s a historic moment. Mamata Banerjee, the founder and leader of West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress Party, defeated the incumbent Communist Party of India-Marxist (C.P.M.), the longest running, democratically elected communist government in the world.

For West Bengal, this is no less than a revolution, and supporters, who affectionately refer to Mamata as Didi, or ‘aunty,’ have high hopes that after 34 years, the Trinamool Congress Party will be victorious. Mamata promised to clean up corruption in government, ignite revenue for state projects and encourage industry development — all this while championing a populist stance in favor of farmers and workers.

That sounds rather communist, you say? Welcome to West Bengal politics, where communists are capitalists. To be fair, the party meant well in the beginning. In the early 20th century, the independence movement against British colonialism was a natural crucible for class struggle. The communist party first arose in Calcutta as the unwelcomed, armed child of that larger movement. The party was small and disorganized then. Interestingly enough, the CPI took off after independence. Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, developed close ties with the Soviet Union and, counter-intuitively, the Soviets pressured India’s Communist Party to support the elected Congress government. Some obliged; others believed that India was still largely a feudal society. They broke away still calling for class struggle. Thus was born the offshoot, CPI – Marxist.

There are few if any examples of Communism that have successfully survived the drive of capitalism. West Bengal was no different. With each decade, compromises for industry crept in. The party made its decisive shift in the 1990s when it supported the reacquisition of land from independent farmers for industry development. That decision combined with an increasing failure to improve the economy and state infrastructure, and leniency towards corruption. The end was nigh. Who knew it would last another 20 years?

Politics in Kolkata comes down to desire and nostalgia. Older intellectuals like my future mother-in-law can’t help but remember when the Communist Party really did stand for equality. And one wonders whether what they miss most is their youth. Everyone else loves Didi. She is fiery. She throws herself in front cars; she writes poetry; she hits other politicians with her dupatta and employs tantrums as strategy.  Didi may have climbed her way out of lower-class obscurity, but she retained the gusto. She’s as unlikely and larger-than-life as a Bollywood star, and isn’t that what every dispossessed Indian wants to be, if only they could…

Bengalis are perhaps the sincerest voters you’ll find. The twin needs for democracy and revolution course through their veins. Americans hold rallies that get a little loud, but Kolkatans bathe their city in politics– literally. Campaign graffiti creeps everywhere, almost like a fungus. It devours every public wall. And parties employ some excellent artists. Communist and Trinamool flags hang alternately across narrow residential streets, obscured only perhaps by the slightly larger Indian flags that welcome the soccer season. Rallies don’t hide out in sterile conference halls. They take to the streets with beat-up lorries topped by rotating loudspeakers. The most ardent supporters paint themselves in party colors and dance. It’s carnivale, a little like the Indian religious festival of Holi, and I half expect to step out of our house to receive a bright ball of communist red or Trinamool green cotton candy.

So far, Mamata has made a lot of promises. Industrial parks, petrochemical hubs, thousands of jobs, irrigation facilities, and multi-specialty hospitals across the state. The promises are, well, popular. The trouble is that these same promises were gifted by her rivals as well, and Ms. Banerjee has yet to explain just how she manages to fix health and education, improve infrastructure and still bring in revenue. Can she woo industry and honor promises to poor farmers and workers? Other than reminding her constituents, “I am not God,” she is reticent in delivering details.

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Q is for Quality

Street food aficionados know that when it comes to quality, variations abound on the street as much as they do behind the walls of restaurant kitchens. In New York, residents of every borough fiercely argue the best attributes of a take-away slice of pie (pizza, that is). Up here in Canada, you might find a discussion board in search of a resolution on where to find the best poutine. And in my hometown of Minneapolis, locals replace last week’s best Pho with this week’s.

A hallmark of rating street food in these parts is that the dingier the place, the better the food. In Kolkata, that litmus test is a bit trickier to use since nearly every brick in Kolkata is dingy, and dingier may just mean contaminated.

So how do you go about sampling the street food across Kolkata?

First, take a guide. I’m lucky that mine grew up in Kolkata, speaks fluent Bengali, and has no desire to see me wheeled into a hospital. The first time I visited India, Surya made sure I abided by the following rules: don’t drink the water, and don’t eat any street food made or served with ice (i.e. fruit juices, lassis, certain yogurt-based delicacies). They restricted my options, but Kolkata has so many choices for street food that I didn’t really take much notice – except when I happened to stop, panting under the bright sun, in front of a juice cart piled with luscious pineapples, mangos and guavas, and Surya dragged me away. He offered, as compensation, some fake, orange-flavored Miranda soda instead.

Eventually, Surya had greater confidence in my constitution. He grew lax in his rules and figured that I could handle what any other Indian faced. By the next summer I was eating fruit juices on the street in New Market and, in Vivekananda Park, downing three or four snacks called “water balls,” in one sitting. I’m not sure what this change says about my beloved’s desire to keep me pathogen-free. I choose to think about the positives: I’m one step closer to blending in. When you’re white in India, you take advances where you can get them.

Second, accept the inevitable. Whether you like it or not, if you travel to a developing country you are likely to, at some point, get sick. You can do all the planning and preparation, follow all the right rules but, inevitably, the grime and germs will settle onto at least one unchecked corner of your carefully arranged universe. The good news is, although you may get terribly sick for a couple of days, you’re likely not to experience the same situation again. You’re inured. Take, for example, the time a wave of typhoid (a water-borne illness) swept through the fledgling university where I worked (you’ll be glad to know this was not in India). Typhoid is not fun. It feels as though you have a massive tumor expanding inside your skull. Every external facial feature throbs as a result. Sun makes it worse. So, you have to hide yourself in the dark all day as well. But, truth be told, the second time I had Typhoid, it wasn’t so bad. A little headache is all. The threat of death always lurks, of course. But no one really thinks about that. If you die from a food-borne illness you really just have terrible luck.

You’ll be glad to know in recent years most Indian cities, including Kolkata, have confronted the hygiene concerns of eaters. And food vendors themselves clamor for assistance in delivering quality, healthy food.  For a long time the Kolkata Municipal Corporation regulated the street food sector, albeit ineffectively. A simple lack of education kept most vendors from following the rules. For example, even though it was outlawed, Metanil yellow (a coloring used in textiles) was frequently used as a substitute for saffron.  The city has since begun a more thorough inspection process of vendors across the city. Now, it’s a model city.

Much of the danger in street food lies in pathogens spread by bacteria-infested water. Most people assume the problem begins with the quality of the water itself, so that not much can be done by a seller to keep his food healthy. However, a 1992 study discovered that the problem was rarely the water but how vendors handled their instruments. Leaving a washed pot upright, for instance, allows a puddle of water to collect at the bottom. It’s a habit not uncommon in kitchens across the West. But under the heat, humidity and pollution on the Indian street that pot becomes a potential breeding ground for bacteria. The solution was to institute training programs where vendors learned hygienic methods for cooking and cleaning. Contrary to the popular conception that street sellers care less about hygiene and more about profit, most vendors recognize that the relationship is symbiotic. Their success depends upon delivering quality food.

Third, money talks. No city is free of food vendors who take risks, who deliver sub-standard fare and border on dangerous. Perhaps the potential for unhygienic food is greater in a city like Kolkata that continues to develop its regulation standards. So, for better or for worse, there is always the universal law of money to stand by. For both health and quality, you are bound to find a better selection of street foods in the wealthier areas of the city. The higher the income level of a neighborhood, the more rupees its residents will spend. Those consumers also have greater expectations. New Alipore is known as the diplomatic neighborhood in Kolkata and is filled with ex-pats and other bureaucrats who have both the hankering for bhel puri or vegetable cutlets and spare change in their pockets. Salt Lake, a newer development, has welcomed a whole new crop of street vendors catering to Kolkata’s yuppies. The price of Kolkata street food can range from a few rupees to a couple of dollars. And the rule, “you get what you pay for,” often applies.

Fourth, choose tradition. But money isn’t the only rule. Sometimes it buys a white-washed version of a Kolkata favorite. Sometimes, the oldie is the goodie, even though it stands in a grubbier part of town and costs significantly less. Decker’s Lane in Dharamtala is one example. The narrow street has been a hot spot for street food since the early days of Kolkata, when business was concentrated in this part of town. Today you still can get the best fish fry in the city there. As Surya says, “If I had to choose between the young or the old man, “I’d choose tradition.”  I’ll wager that goes for establishments as well…

Fifth, do some light reading. Don’t dismiss the guidebooks. I know, I know. It’s often the case that you follow a suggestion, get lost four times before finally finding the restaurant, and the food has gone decidedly downhill (if it was ever uphill). But every now and again, a guidebook can hit on a not-so-hidden gem. You just need to read between the lines. “A favorite hotspot,” for instance, is likely to look smart but bat poorly. “Surprisingly tasty,” however, could indicate drool-worthy praise. Moreover, all the venues usually have been tested by a human guinea pig, so you can bet on safety. But don’t stop at traditional guidebooks. Kolkatans are natural foodies, and food is a major topic of conversation on many forums. I like to check India Mike, which is a community website for travelers all over India. The site offers forums for the major cities, including Kolkata and a forum on Indian cuisine and cooking. Zomato is an online food guide that offers community reviews and menus. And if you’ve landed in Kolkata without having turned a page or clicked a link, stop by a bookstore and purchase the Kingfisher Kolkata Explocity.

Perhaps you find yourself one day standing in front of a smiling vendor sporting a dirty shirt. His succulent chicken roll rests in one hand and a mess of tamarind sauce and chili paste drips from the other. And you are still not sure whether you should hand over your change. Think of this: Bengalis are not only food lovers, but they are also amateur pharmacists. Tell a Bengali you’re sick, and she’ll spout off a list of medicines you can try, from the most tame (an anti-inflammatory pill) to the most bizarre (incantations over a handful of salt). No matter how sick their food makes you, Bengalis always stick around to point you to the nearest pharmacy or wacko. Your choice.

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