Samosa Does Not Have An Indian Origin: History Of The Samosa

Lala Ji was my friend who used to sit in the neighbourhood, a few hundred metres away from our house in Ramgarh (Jharkhand) selling Samosa or as we used to call Singhara along with Jalebi and chai. He was, in fact, quite popular in the neighbourhood. Kids will go to him after school and all the working class people will sit at his place post work and discuss politics over a cup of chai and singhara (samosa). Apart from the coriander chutney, Lala Ji also used to give ghughni with singhara which is also a very common combination in Jharkhand. Ghughni essentially is a dish prepared with black peas (Kala Chana) and a little tanginess is added with tomatoes and dried mango powder (amchur).

My friends and I used to fight to decide who’d get the top with the aloo (potato) stuffing and the bottom crispy part. I loved the top because while others (idiots) loved the bottom.

Often in cities and villages, Samosa-jalebi and chai can be described as the most famous evening snack. One can fight and debate over the fact that their state has perfected the art of Singhara/Samosa (Jharkhand/Bihar/Kolkata are the best, just saying). But hey there, hold on, if you have been wondering that the Indians have sole claim to this most famous and common dish of theirs’. These small fried pastries were quite legendary (and Célèbre) inside Mughal palace. It serves as a gastronomical symbol for globalization which existed long before we could ever think of. No wonder, it could only be seen on the royal platters before the recipe got regionalised.

So, just like a lot of other Indian cuisines, samosa is also an immigrant and started its journey along the ancient trade routes of Central Asia.  Although in central Asia, this fried pastry was usually enjoyed with stuffed keema but when it came to India, it was improvised, and stuffed with mashed potato.

The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson says;

The Indian [subcontinent] samosa is merely the best known of an entire family of stuffed pastries or dumplings popular from Egypt and Zanzibar to Central Asia and West China. Arab cookery books of the 10th and 13th centuries refer to the pastries as sanbusak (currently pronounced in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon), sambuca or sanbusaj, all reflecting the early medieval form of the Persian word sanbosag, though originally it was named samsa, after the triangular pyramids of Central Asia.

The poet Amir Khusrao (the 13th-century poet, musician, and scholar) wrote that the Delhi royalty enjoyed the snack immensely, and that tradition continues today from Delhi to Lahore and Karachi to Mumbai. He even once phrased a riddle:

Amir Khusro (middle) | Picture Courtesy 

Samosa kyun na khaya? Joota kyun na pehna?

Talaa na tha.

[Translation: Why wasn’t the samosa eaten? Why wasn’t the shoe worn? The samosa wasn’t fried (talaa), the shoe didn’t have a sole (also called talaa.)]

The famous Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta, who visited India in the 14th century, mentions his encounter with this dish in the courts of Muhammad bin Tughlaq. The emperor was in love with this dish and the royal chefs were specially requested to cook with onion, ghee, and meat. According to Ibn Battuta, a dish called sambusak — triangular pastry packed with mince, peas, pistachios, almonds and other fillings — was placed on the guests’ plates right after the sherbet had been sipped. Other courses followed.

Manuscript (c. 16th century) showing samosas being served

Niʻmatnāmah-i Nāṣirshāhī (Nasir Shah’s Book of Delights) written for Sultan Ghiyas al-Din Khilji (r.1469-1500) and completed by his son Nasir al-Din Shah (r.1500-1510) mentions about a quick and easy recipe of samosa.

Mix together well-cooked mince with the same amount of minced onion and chopped dried ginger, a quarter of those, and half a tūlcha [a measure] of ground garlic and having ground three tūlchas of saffron in rosewater, mix it with the mince together with aubergine pulp. Stuff the samosas and fry (them) in ghee. Whether made from thin course flour bread or from fine flour bread or from the uncooked dough, any of the three (can be used) for cooking samosas, they are delicious.

Sultan was a big foodie and hence he gave up his sword and fighting to pursue what he truly loved. Apart from samosa, this book also mentions other recipes from his time including sherbet.

Originally named Samsa, after the pyramids in Central Asia, historical accounts also refer to it as sanbusak, sanbusaq or even sanbusaj, all deriving from the Persian word, sanbosag.

When the Britishers came to India they also couldn’t resist but fall in love with the samosa. They took our samosa to the far corners of their colonial empire which lead to many regional versions.

Samosa at Bhopal Station | Picture Courtesy

From railway stations to airports, tapri (smalls shops) to a fancy fine dining restaurant, there is a high likelihood that you are never far from this iconic triangular snack of central Asia. In India they might call it samosa, singhara, lukmi, warqi, labong latika, gujiya or anything; they all belong to the same family. They might look different, with meat, potato, peas, cottage cheese, mawa or anything else; they all are a part of our multi-cultural history.

Just like the samosa arrived in India, it also travelled to several other parts of the world. Here is a list to help you understand how amazing this triangular snack is.

– In Portugal, Brazil and Mozambique, samosa is known as ‘pastéis’, which is just a rendition of the Goan chamuças.

– The Arab countries refer to their version of the samosa – a semi-circular pastry – as sambusak and stuff it with a mix of minced meat or chicken, onions, spinach and feta cheese.

– In Israel, samosas are stuffed with mashed chickpeas.

– In Maldives, the samosa is known as bajiyaa and made with a filling of tuna or fish mixed with onions.

– In Central Asia, the samsas are still baked and not fried and stuffed with a variety of fillings, ranging from the mixture of minced lamb and onions to minced beef, chicken, and different types of cheese, potato or pumpkin.

Hungry already? Follow the recipe mentioned above or watch my video of singhara and if you are in the mood to experiment then watch my video on chocolate samosa.

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