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Samosa, the world’s most globalised snack with an Indian heart

From an elite delicacy, Samosa has become the king of street food in India and large parts of the globe

If there was an award for the most popular snack, not chef, the samosa would emerge a worthy winner. Its Indian popularity aside, it is one of the most globalised snacks existing in not just South Africa and the Arab world, where it originated, but in Africa and South America too. Different fillings, different shapes, different coverings, and even different techniques of cooking (fried or baked, you take a pick) and yet it is a dish that is instantly recognisable and instantly loved.

The samosa is a tea time snack in northern India, but even in the subcontinent, its variations are many and spark gourmet wars – from the Bengali/Assamese/Nepali Singhara, as people in the eastern part of the subcontinent call the samosa (the potato filling has slight variations from that in the north, including Punjab), to the samosa chaat of Punjab, to the delicate mince filled lukhmi of Hyderabad, and the dal samose of Rajasthan and Gujarat (not to mention the fresh matar ke samose that UPwallahs make), the iterations are many and delicious, but the samosa is not Indian.

It is perhaps one of the first examples of a globalised food, originating in the Middle East, and finding a mention in old Arab cookbooks of the 10th century onwards. It seemed to have become a popular dish in the Iranian food culture that dominated the Arab/Turkish culture of the region, as the Central Asian Samsa spread—and found a mention in works such as by Persian historian Abolfazi Beyhaqi (995-1077 AD).

In India, the Turkish-Afghan sultanates of Delhi saw this snack as that of the elite rulers and noblemen, filled with mince but also spiced with Indian cloves and flavoured with ghee. Amir Khusrau, Sufi saint, and poet, credited as the founder of Hindustani Classical music and the table, who lies buried in the tomb of Nizammuddin Auliya, and is regarded as Delhi’s oldest Sufi protectors, mentions it in his court writings.

The Sambusak filled with mince, onions, spices and prepared in ghee was enjoyed by the noblemen of 13th-14th century Delhi, as Ibn Batuta who visited India during the reign of Muhammad bin Tughlaq also describes it. Akbar, however, does not call it by its Turkish name. In Ain-i-Akbari, he mentions the qottabh, the Iranian sweet pastry, filled with nuts, and says that Indians ate a savoury version of it which they call Sambusah or Sanbusah. This ties in with historical accounts that the mince samsa fell into relative obscurity for some centuries in the Middle East, even as its memory and variation was retained in India.

The qottabh, or ghottab, was a descendant of the Samsa—but the improvisation saw the emergence of a sweet version, which possibly influenced India’s own ghoja/gujia during the Mughal period with its Persian influences.

With the disintegration of the Delhi sultanate and the invasion of Timur, an outpost sprung up as the Malwa sultanate in what is now Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in the 15th century. It was eventually conquered by the Mughals in 1562. But in the ensuing period, cuisine and the arts were patronised. The Nimatnama-I-Nasiruddin Shahi dated 1500 is an important source of what food in pre Mughal India was like. It mentions the Sambusah as a course served before the pulao. (So, all those who take umbrage at Indian restaurants in the US or the UK serving samosa as a main course, may refrain. Historically at least it was a main course, even though India has never traditionally followed the Russian service popularised by the French of meals served in courses.)

With the Sambusah possibly surviving in western and central India after the fall of the Delhi sultanate, it is tempting to assume how its democratisation happened. From a food for the elite, filled with mince, it seems to have become a more mass offering filled with lentils, the common staple of the region. Dal Dhokli or the small samosas filled with dry and spiced lentils obviously borrow from the kachori tradition of western and northern India. We see them as a popular namkeen and farsan made even today and the ones made with dry dal have a longer shelf life too, pointing to perhaps their origin in trading communities.

In fact, the samosa is a popular food in the Ethiopian and East African cuisines too. The Ethiopian lentil filled samosa may underscore the historic trade connections between India and the Horn of Africa. Indian traders and ships historically plied the Red Sea route to Europe via the Horn of Africa. But in the early medieval period, Abyssinian slaves and soldiers accompanied the Turkish sultans to Delhi. As the sultanate grew an offshoot in Malwa, one of these slaves, Malik Ambar, in fact, grew to be the Sultan. It’s history we may have forgotten but which foods like the samosa bear testimony to. The Ethiopian lentil samosa is in fact a connector of three different cultures—Arab/Turkish, Indian, and East African. The Patti Samosa, popular amongst the Bohri Muslims of Mumbai, is again reflective of a culinary exchange with Africa, where the thinner sheets (or patti) influenced by the filo pastry of the middle east, makes the covering.

The aloo filled samosa meanwhile is obviously a later day invention. We may not know whether it came up in northern, eastern, or central India, as lentils or peas, indigenous to India, got replaced by the potato that came in via early colonialism. The potato, however, was first cultivated in what is now the hills of Uttarakhand as an exotic crop and its gradual absorption in Indian cooking only happened by the late 19th, early 20th centuries. So, the aloo samosa or Singhara is a much later invention of the Indian subcontinent.

In the early 20th century, as indentured labour from the poorer parts of UP, Bihar, Orissa and Bengal were shipped to other British colonies to work on the plantations, the samosa filled with mince, which seems to have become a Mughal era democratic snack also travelled with them. So, we find it in the various Bajas (Bhajas, or frys) of Mauritius and even the Caribbean. Meanwhile, if the potato samosa was a colonial era innovation, its spinoff is to be found not just in Calcutta’s Singharas but also in the Burmese samosa salad, the Calcutta-Burma colonial connections made evident in a single dish.

How food travels are in fact a way for us to connect the dots of the past—cultures are interlinked not just through their politics and economics but through shared tastes.

Also Read: The birth of the iconic Butter Chicken in Delhi’s Daryaganj