Tracing the origin of scrumptious samosa

Story: Merrin James

Some of my happiest childhood memories are filled with the aroma and exquisite taste of crispy samosas – synonymous with comfort-food, laden with nostalgic warmth. It was fascinating to see how the deep-fried pyramidal pastry fluffed up and gradually turned a golden brown, before it was scooped out with a netted ladle and served hot with green mint chutney, or even the tangy sweet-sour tamarind sauce. Trysts with this favourite tea-time snack were indeed a lip-smacking affair like no other.

But did you know that the humble samosa, known popularly as a street-side snack, in fact, had a royal beginning as an appetiser fit for kings. Eloquent praises of this tempting triangular delicacy (as sanbusaj) can be found in poems dating back to the 9th and 13th centuries, by famous poets and scholars Ishaq al-Mawsili and Amir Khusro, respectively.

A fifteenth-century manuscript called Kitāb-i Nimatnāmah-i Nāirshāhī (Nasir Shah’s Book of Delights) written for Ghiyas al-Din Khilji, also mentions eight different recipes just for making samosas – his favourite snack.

Often mistaken to have originated in India, the samosa in fact, has its roots in Central Asia and Middle East. Food historian Colleen Taylor Sen in her book Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, states that the word sambusak may have come from the Arabic se referring to the three sides and ambos which is a kind of bread.

A Baghdadi cookbook, Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Dishes) that dates back to the 13th century, offers recipes for three versions of the sambusak. The first filled with meat and flavoured with coriander, cumin, pepper, cinnamon, mint and pounded almonds; the second with halwa; and a third with sugar and almonds.

So how did this snack become so popular world over? It is said that traders from Middle East who travelled far and wide, introduced this delicious treat to the rest of the world. The Britishers too fell in love with the samosa on their arrival in India and they in turn, took the tasty snack with them to the far corners of their colonial empire. The modest samosa settled in the hearts of people everywhere, leading to the evolution of multiple regional versions.

Loved by the old and young alike, the samosa has emerged as a truly international snack that’s transcended cultural barriers and is enjoyed by people across the globe. The secret to its popularity is the variety of fillings to suit the tastes of diverse ethnicities. It may however, take different forms, including triangular, cone, or half-moon shapes, depending on the region.

Alan David in his book The Oxford Companion to Food (1999) describes the usual Arab sanbusak as one filled with meat, onions, and perhaps nuts or raisins, but sanbusak bil loz is stuffed with a mixture of ground almonds, sugar, and rose or orange blossom water. In Central Asia, the versions made with rough puff pastry (waraqi såmsa, sambusai varaqi) are filled with meat.

In India, traditionally, the maida shell is stuffed with a mixture of mashed boiled potato, onions, lentils, spices and green chilli. While on the one hand, we have huge Punjabi samosas that are packed with flavoursome peas-potato mash, on the other, there are the mini cocktail samosas — the perfect finger food to tuck into while on the move.

With fusion food becoming increasingly popular globally, chefs have begun experimenting with some unconventional tempting varieties of this signature snack. Some of the popular ones being, macaroni and noodles samosas, steamed samosas, manchurian samosas, and some irresistible gourmet variants like samosa-chaat even, complete with liquid nitrogen display to appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of the discerning palate.

If you have a sweet tooth, you could dig into some dessert varieties such as the exotic apple-pie samosa or the delectable chocolate samosa, served with ice-cream. In fact, the simple samosa can be found everywhere today, even in hypermarkets as a ready-to-cook frozen pack, that’s a convenient quick-fix for days when you have unexpected guests.

Reading through this has certainly made your mouth water, so go grab a plate of samosas paired with your favourite warm beverage and indulge in the unbeatable combo that’s simply perfect for the weather in Oman now. Oh, and don’t forget to dip it in some tasty chutney, or even good ol’ ketchup.