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Tasty Triangles

It is the archetypal Indian snack. Now, all we need is for the great Indian cooks to rediscover the samosa and treat it with the respect it deserves, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Sep 12, 2009 20:05 IST
Vir Sanghvi

The samosa is the archetypal Indian snack. You can have hot samosas with your tea or you can have them cold, several hours after they have been made. You can have your samosas filled with spicy keema or you can have totally vegetarian versions filled with potatoes, paneer or even peas and French beans. You can enjoy the hefty Punjabi version or you can have the thinner, more delicate Bohra version from Bombay. You can eat your samosa on the railway platform in Ambala or you can buy it from a bakery in Alleppey.

What’s more, it is now one of the most internationally renowned Indian snacks. Last month, I ate at a French restaurant in Montreal. Part of the first course was a samosa with a cheese filling. The French usually describe filled pastries with terms derived from their own extensive gastronomic lexicon or call them pastillas or whatever: But this was called a samosa on the menu. As Montreal is a bit of a hick town I wondered if this would confuse other diners with less experience of Asia. Not at all: they all seemed to know what a samosa was, even though there was no explanation on the menu.

Somewhat less surprisingly, the samosa has also been welcomed into the British mainstream. It frequently turns up in upmarket picnic hampers sold by such shops as Harrods and Fortnum and Mason. I’ve seen it on display at many tea and sandwich places. And British supermarkets usually sell some version of the samosa: fresh, frozen, ready to cook etc.
All this should make Middle Easterners very angry.

Because the samosa is not really an Indian dish at all.

Push Indian food writers and they will eventually concede that the earliest mentions of the samosa in Indian literature can only be found after the Muslims established their kingdoms in India. Samosas turn up again and again on Mughal menus, usually as savories stuffed with various kinds of keema. At the risk of alienating the RSS, I have to state that I was unable to find a single Hindu source for this dish. Even the great K T Achaya, who usually managed to assert that every famous Indian dish originated long before the Muslims arrived, perhaps even when the cooks of the Indus Valley Civilisation were hard at work (he speculates that as early tandoors have been excavated there, perhaps even tandoori cooking started in Mohenjodaro) seemed unable to locate an ancient Tamil kingdom where the samosa was the court dish.

The problem with trying to pretend that we invented the samosa is that it makes extensive appearances in Middle Eastern literature in the medieval era. Even today, a version of the samosa, called a sambusak, is eaten all over the Middle East.
According to Alan Davidson’s Penguin Companion to Food, the very name samosa comes from the Persian word sambosag. By the 10th century, Arab cookbooks were already giving the recipe and called it a sambusak.

The samosa/sambusak spread all over the Middle East as conquerors and traders travelled and it took various forms and various shapes in every country. The original sambusak was probably a halfmoon but as it moved, it acquired its current triangular shape. In some countries (Turkey and Afghanistan for instance) both triangular and semi-circular shapes continue to co-exist.

So what was India’s contribution? How did we turn the sambusak into the samosa?
I can think of several Indian innovations. It is almost certain that Indians were not into baking (the Indus Valley oven not withstanding) until the Muslims got here. Nor were we very familiar with refined flour or maida. We used atta which, while healthier, is somewhat more limited when it comes to the possibilities for pastry.

The original sambusak was probably made from maida. It might well have also been baked. In that sense it was related to the pastilla of Morocco and Spain and the pastele of the Sephardic Jews. Other European pastry dishes such as the puff and the pasty probably derive from the same source. But an army cannot bake. Nor can a wandering trader.

Somewhere along the way, the people of the Middle East began frying their sambusaks. It is easy to see why they would do this: you can fill a dekchi with oil and build a fire pretty much anywhere you go. An oven is much more difficult to construct.

So, by the time traders and conquerors had made the journey to India from Europe and Central Asia, they had given up on the baked version. The sambusak they brought to India was probably fried.

Then, the genius of Indian cooking took over. India has a long tradition of taking so-so middle eastern foods (the pulao or the kebab, for instance) and turning them into delicacies. At the Mughal court, the sambusaks or samosas were not filled with pumpkins and walnuts as they had been in the Middle East. Instead, Indian cooks devised delicate and more innovative fillings.

It used to be said that Mughal chefs loved keema because it was the perfect medium for transferring any kind of flavour. So, court chefs took the boring sambusak and turned it into a haute cuisine dish. I’m not sure – and records are unclear on this – how the court chefs abolished the baked version of the dish but my guess is that they preferred the delicate crispness of a well-fried samosa to the stodginess of a baked sambusak.

When did the samosa make the transition from the courts to the kitchens of ordinary people? And why have today’s great Mughlai chefs given up on it, treating it as the sort of thing best left to halwais?

I don’t know. And try as I might, I have been unable to find an answer in the literature.

What is clear is that, even in the Middle East, there is a tradition of vegetarian sambusaks. In Central Asia, those made with puff pastry (and baked) are non-vegetarian. Those made with dough (leavened or unleavened) are often vegetarian.
My theory – and it is only a theory – is that Indian cooks (or to be less politically correct: non-court cooks and Hindu halwais) took the sambusak/samosa and married it to another Indian tradition: the deep fried snack such as the pakora, vada, the bonda or the kachori.

Indians have always liked the idea of taking a filling and encasing it in some kind of dough (atta, besan etc.) before deep-frying it. When the samosa moved out of the court kitchens, it was quickly turned into that kind of halwai snack.
More significantly, it ceased to be the sort of haute cuisine dish that had to be eaten as soon as it was made. The distinguishing feature of the samosa these days is that it is often served several hours after it has been cooked.

As deep fried foods do not keep very well, cooks have had to make compromises. Vegetarian fillings are not just cheaper but they are also less likely to go off. A thin and delicate batter will get soggy quickly so fat Punjabi-style shells have been used to encase the filling. And because even these do not stay crisp for very long, halwais have invented samosa chaat in which the samosa is broken up and then doused with chutney (and sometimes, dahi) so that the texture of the casing does not matter so much.

I have nothing against halwai samosas or their regional variations (such as the spicier, smaller shingara of Calcutta) but the best samosas are still the small, crisp ones with a thin casing that are served soon after they are made.

The Gujarati samosa falls into this category. The non-vegetarian version is associated with Gujarati Muslim communities (the Bohras, the Khojas, the Memons etc.) and there is a delicate vegetarian version (with such fillings as French beans and peas) that most traditional maharajs will make.

In the old days, it was easy enough to get the small Gujarati samosa in Bombay. The old MG Café on Queen’s Road was famous for it and many restaurants (including the now defunct Bombellis) would buy ready-made uncooked samosas from central suppliers and then fry them just before serving.

You can still get them but it is getting more and more difficult: the fat Punjabi samosa has taken over just as the fat Punjabi chef has, at most hotels and restaurants.

Now, all we need is for the great Indian cooks – the Imtiazs and the Raises etc. – to rediscover the samosa and to treat it with the respect it deserves.

There is a lost tradition waiting to be revived here.