Our very own and favourite delicacy, the samosa was never ours. The neatly folded, tightly packed savoury goodness actually travelled far and wide thanks to its amazing social networking skills, it adapted to the local’s tastes and settled here like no other. It even left its footprints along the way and different forms and names of this stuffed triangle can be found from Egypt to Libya and Central Asia to India.
Historically, the word samosa can be traced to the Persian word sanbosag, that originated in the Middle East and Central Asia. Here, small mince-filled triangles were easy to make around the campfire during night halts and were packed into saddlebags as snacks for the next day’s journey.
It then spread to Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and so on. The chamuças spread to Portugal, Mozambique, and Brazil as ‘pastéis’.
Today, while the Arab countries have semi-circular ‘sambusak’ containing minced chicken or meat with onion, feta cheese, and spinach. In Israel, it includes mashed chickpeas also. In Central Asian Turkic-speaking countries, the ‘somsa’ is baked instead of being fried and minced lamb and onion is the most popular filling. In Africa, the ‘sambusa’ is a staple of Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea. The snack is traditionally served at Ramadan, Christmas and other special occasions.
However, it can be noted that all these dishes are rather different from the Indian Samosa, as they are non vegetarian. This is because it was only after the “samosa” arrived in India, that it adopted vegetarianism. This happened, following the invasion of the Central Asian Turkic dynasties and the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in the region, through traders around the 13th-14th century.
Amir Khusro wrote in around 1300 CE that the princes and nobles enjoyed the “samosa prepared from meat, ghee, onion, and so on”. Even Ibn-Batuta describes a meal at the court of Muhammad bin Tughluq, where the samushak or sambusak, a small pie stuffed with minced meat, almonds, pistachios, walnuts, and spices, was served before the third course, of pulao. Nimmatnama-i-Nasiruddin-Shahi, a cookbook started for Ghiyath al-Din Khalji also mentions the art of making samosa. However, today, it is hard to imagine a samosa containing anything but potato for most people residing in the subcontinent. Thus, it was not immediately with the entering the subcontinent that samosa was filled with aloo (potato) as it had to be transformed further by successive waves of migrants into India. Even though addition of coriander, pepper, caraway seeds, ginger and most importantly vegetables began.
A samosa began to be filled with potato and flavoured with green chillies as late as the 16th Century as they were introduced from the New World by Portuguese traders then.
The samosa offers you the ultimate tongue seduction, yet is worth noting is that in India itself, there are many variations of the same, for example, in Hyderabad, the samosa is known as ‘lukhmi’ and has a thicker crust and is usually filled with minced-meat. Bengali ‘shingaras’ are smaller and sweeter than samosas. It has a flakier crust made from white flower instead of wheat flower. The filling includes unmashed boiled potatoes. The Goan samosa is known as a ‘chamuças’, which is made with minced pork, chicken, or beef.
And, of course, the samosa’s journey did not end in India. After centuries of refinement and reworking here it followed new routes back out into the world. The British loved the samosa and spread the now uniquely Indian innovation across their vast empire – along with shampoo, bungalows, verandas and pyjamas. And, as the Indian diaspora has spread around the globe in the last few centuries, they too took samosas with them. Which is why what began as a tasty titbit for ancient Persian emperors is now enjoyed in virtually every country on Earth.
Thus, the samosa has a surprisingly rich, diverse, and storied history, having traveled far and wide through Central Asia and across the Himalayan Steppe to reach the place that in modern times is thought of as its home. And it is a historic artefact – as well as delectable evidence that there is nothing new about the process of globalisation.