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.
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.
* 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