I have eaten a lot of samosas in my time. My mother made them at home and at the temple, a well practiced rhythm of rolling and folding them before deep frying them in huge batches. Sometimes they were filled with paneer, sometimes potato or cauliflower, there were usually peas in there too.
Our samosas had what I called ‘toes’ when I was little, crimped like a Cornish pasty. (Please see photo above.) I’ve never encountered samosas anywhere else that look like them, something that niggles at me. I believe it was AC Bhaktivedanta Swami’s way of making samosas, which he taught to Yamuna and was then disseminated through temple kitchens. He came from Kolkata so I imagine that there must be people in Bengal who make samosas like he did…
Sometimes we used to visit a lady in Belfast named Mrs Narayan. She would make endless filo pastry samosas and hosted bridal mehendi parties. Her samosas seemed somehow more sophisticated than the ones I was used to. Upon enquiry it seems that filo is viewed as a shortcut or indeed an insurance policy. I’m told that not only does using filo save time but it means that there is nowhere to go wrong with the pastry.
I want to know more about samosas and begin my quest for information. I learn that they are originally not Indian. Pastries called sanbosag were made in Persia; fried, filled with meat, dried fruit and nuts, as described by the 11th century historian Abul-Fazl Beyhaqi. It was a snack served in the courts.
The filling for sanbosag sounds not unlike the original mince pies, which used spices from the East and combined fruit and meat. The English cookbook A Forme of Cury published in 1390 included a recipe for pies that also contained cheese, eggs, saffron, sugar and dried fruit. Gervase Markham’s 1615 recipe used cloves, mace, currants, raisins, prunes, dates, and orange peel. In 1747, Hannah Glasse suggests in her Art of Cookery that you make a sweet or savoury version, as did Mrs Beaton. A sweet filling became more common as sugar became cheaper. It was thanks to the Victorians that the mince pie became established as a sweet pastry item.
Sanbosag travelled through central Asia, over the mountains of modern day Afghanistan and down through India. By the time they reached Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, they had become according to Professor Pushpesh Pant, a ‘crude peasant food’. It was a calorific, substantial meal that a shepherd might take with him for a day on the pastures, no longer a delicate snack. The filling became simpler with the fruit, nuts and spices disappearing, one assumes they must have been expensive.
The sambosag as a shepherd’s lunch reminds me of the Cornish pasty or the Bedfordshire clanger, both working mens’ packed lunches. The Bedfordshire clanger contained a savoury filling at one end and a sweet one at the other. Apparently there was also a similar Cornish pasty containing two courses. Pastry in England started life as a mixture of flour and water that functioned as a sort of early Tupperware. Pies were made and kept for up to a year, with the crust supposedly preventing the contents from spoiling. The idea of pastry protecting the filling was an important one for Cornish tin miners who had no way of washing their hands before they ate. The tin they mined often contained arsenic; they held their pasties by the crimp, which they discarded once they had eaten the rest of it. Samosa pastry was however always designed to be eaten. Terry Kirby claims that the Cornish pasty is closely related to the empanada and the samosa but frustratingly doesn’t say how. My trawling of internet reveals no further details.
Both the samosa and the mince pie became vegetarian, the former predominantly so. Whereas the mince pie became sweet, the samosa is savoury. It is generally made with potato and chili, ingredients brought to India by the Portuguese in the 16th century from the New World. Portuguese traders brought samosas to North and West Africa, where they are known as sambussa or sambosa. Fascinatingly, the Spanish adopted North African samosas from the Moors and took them to the New World, giving rise to the empanada. Indian labourers brought samosas to Jamaica, where the patty was influenced by both samosas and Cornish pasties.
We’ve all had ubiquitous restaurant samosas – neat triangles of filo pastry, served with a lemon wedge and a bit of salad. These are common in the sort of Indian restaurant found in the UK. These restaurants have their roots in Bangladeshi cuisine, a brand defined by the Bahadur brothers, who at one stage, trained all Indian restaurant chefs in the UK. But of course, when the English like something, they render it disappointing. Stodgy pre-cooked samosas in the chilled aisle of a supermarket, frozen snack selections from Iceland. I am however intrigued by the freezer section in the big Asda in Lewisham which stocks kilo bags of perfectly folded samosas, ready to be fried. (Morrisons sells Haldi Ram’s frozen Punjabi samosas, tidy 3D pyramids that sit flat on their base. I serve these to guests who I worry will be critical of vegetarian food. If they’re negative, at least it’s not my cooking they’re being negative about and I can still brand them uncultured.)
When I moved to London, I found samosas closer to the ones I knew, in more modern Indian restaurants or those in parts of London with large Indian communities. Punjabi samosas made with a sturdy pastry, sometimes served chaat-style with tamarind and coriander chutney, garnished with pomegranate seeds and sev noodles. OmNom‘s weren’t served with chickpeas, they were cold with the chutneys soaking in. My colleague served us samosas warm with chana masala. I ate quite a lot and felt relieved when she produced a second tray from the oven, worried that I’d eaten far more than my fair share.
Dassana Amit of Veg Recipes of India differentiates between the sturdier, crisper Punjabi samosa and the Bengali singhara. The latter are usually made with varying combinations of potatoes, cauliflower and peas but she folds both types the same way. I find crimped samosas on a beautiful blog called The Dancing Mustards, where they are referred to as Punjabi samosas. I also find some that look a bit like mine in a recipe in the New York Times, by David Tanis who has made them in attempt to recreate the samosas he buys from a Pakistani deli in lower Manhattan. My colleague whose husband’s family are from Pakistan does not recognise them as Pakistani samosas.
Scratching my head, I check Yamuna Devi’s The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking, which she spent ten years putting together. She includes recipes for potato singhara, cauliflower & pea and cauliflower & potato samosas. On page 479, she writes, ‘The top edge can be left plain, crimped with a fork or plaited with your fingers’. There we go. Mystery solved.
Devi, Y. (1987) Lord Krishna’s Cuisine: The Art of Vegetarian Cooking. New York: Bala Books.
Greenwood, V. (2017) The strange and twisted history of mince pies: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20171208-the-strange-and-twisted-history-of-mince-pies
Kirby, T. (2006) Who Invented The Cornish Pasty?: The Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/who-invented-the-cornish-pasty-5331278.html
Rowlett, J. (2016) The story of India as told by a simple street snack: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-36548445
Tanis, D. (2016) Pakistani Potato Samosas New York Times Available at https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1018358-pakistani-potato-samosas
Zibart, E. (2005) The Samosa: World Traveller Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1995/02/17/the-samosa-world-traveler/b9b5591d-4e1f-40dc-9ba1-0a25de5e2522/