What is about this treat that makes it a swell idea 365 days a year? A look into the treat that conquered a million tales.
By Madhulika Dash. Illustration courtesy Sarasvathy TK
Samosa. The all-too-familiar triangle culinary love story that we all are fond of. But ever wondered why this omnipresent street snack is so widely made, had, and even celebrated. Think about it, unlike its brethren like the patties and pakodas, samosa does not need a rhyme of reason to be had. It is enjoyed through the year with a cup of tea or even as a chaat slathered with the layers of chutneys and spices to create that happy pucker-up feeling. One of the many reasons say mind experts why chaats have always been a part of the neuro gastronomy series – essentially a group of dishes that have this brilliant ability to alter moods and built the idea of nostalgia. This perhaps explains why every time we see samosa there is this inherent desire to have it despite the nutritionist tagline of samosa not being healthy. Such has been our association with samosa that it remains one of the few dishes that has inspired many to create its baked version to give it that extra brownie points of being relatively healthy. And yet, when it comes to taste and satiation, nothing quite does the work like the samosa that has been deep fried. The answer to this is obvious: fat adds to taste and that’s where deep frying excels brilliantly by creating this golden, flaky pastry that breaks into a delicious filling of potato mash or keema turning every bite into a culinary mela. But is that the only reason why samosa has such an outstanding fan following among its makers and patrons alike? Not really, says culinary revivalist Chef Sabysachi Gorai, “samosa arrived on the Silk Route ports (closest one being in Pakistan or what was once considered Erstwhile Punjab) around the 12th century and according to the famous poet Amir Khusro, soon made its way into the royal court of the Delhi Sultanate where it became a favourite nosh made in ghee with a meat-onion filling. Such was the love for this flaky, soft pies that could pair with any kind of filling, whimsical included that by the time Muhammad bin Tughluq came to power, samosa or sambusak had already found its place in the royal sit downs. Ibn Battuta who had had the chance to dine with the erratic emperor describes the popular sambusak as these “spicy, small pies stuffed with minced meat, almonds, pistachios and walnuts served as a palate teaser right before the third course, the pulao. Even though not a main course, the soft, spicy, stuffed pies, according to Battuta’s account, “was a much beloved part of the meal as it had the element of surprise.”
Incidentally, nothing much changed for sambusak even with the change of power hands. With the Mughals, this pie took centre stage again. Only this time its role wasn’t as simple of that in Delhi Sultanate, but as the perfect canvas that helped the Mughals to open their palate to the food of the land, they only ruled but were yet to own completely. What aided in sambusak evolution in the Mughal kitchens wasn’t just the different kinds of food cultures that it became a melting pot to, but also the pre-opening team that came with Emperor Babur to cook him delicious food that he was familiar with without killing him in return. Their experience with the sambusak and its many brethren found in Central Asia helped them use the soft pie in creating an array of interesting fillings that made the pie an integral part of the Mughal food culture, and a muse that many a dynasty took a liking to with the Mughals rising to become the all-powerful ruler of a greatly united India. Concurs seasoned Chef Pradeep Tejwani (founder, Young Turks), who feels that the kitchens and alliances that the Mughals made through marriages may have contributed to sambusak popularity across the country. And in all likelihood would have also influenced the fascinating array of samosas we see today, including the one made with dal and even the patti samosa – which many culinary minds believe is an ode to the first iteration of sambusak that was made in the kitchen of Delhi Sultanate.”
Was it really the case, adds Chef Gorai, “ is up for a debate, however, there is no denying that politics, trade and war did help making sambusak that somewhere in its journey became samosa to have not just a nation-wide presence, and this is old India we are talking about, but a love for the treat too. After all, even in its pie shape, samosa or sambusak always remained in a snack format that was enjoyed as such.” Interestingly, says Chef Tejwani, “sambusak for a generous part of its royal journey remained a privy of the well-heeled and the royal, courtesy the lavish meat fillings and the generous use of dry fruits and nuts that only the rich and powerful could afford. That was until the Portuguese landed on the Indian coast thanks to the lure of the Spice Route and introduced some new-age ingredients like the tomatoes and potatoes.”
It was, however, adds Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotels), “the latter that led to the sambuka or samosa’s rise as a popular food for the masses. The reason for this, on hindsight, seems rather simple as potatoes could work with different spices, even the most subtle ones and then elevate it to a level where one could enjoy it better. How and when did our ancestors discover the magical ace to the unfamiliar ingredient is a hard guess but given that India back then was accustomed to adapting change faster, the chances are that the classic pairing of samosa and potatoes would have occurred than we can think of. After all, of the many reasons that deep frying was a revered technique even back then was the believe that frying – which has a fast way of cooking food – could do two things efficiently: one, make food tastier; and two, could eliminate any inedibility there is. Of course, the fact that frying broke down food into quick digesting elements was one more reason that the art continued to be practiced and encouraged through the years and even today.”
Is it safe to assume that it was the potatoes that gave samosa its timeless appeal and relevance, especially now that the potato filled samosa has been set as the benchmark of being the authentic? It is a potato- patata situation, say the culinary minds, “as there is with every classic pairing. The idea of sambuka or samosa was to be this flaky pie that could make every filling delicious. And in its centuries-old existence, samosa has shown how to do with simplicity and a bit of flair. And that is what makes samosa one of the most popular treats on our street. Where else would you find a patty that is as much known for its triangle shape as it is for the art of taking on interesting flavours and fillings and turning them delicious.”