No evening snack in India can be complete without tea and the quintessential samosa. Samosa is my favourite snack. While enjoying samosa and tea at home in the evening, I was wondering about its origin. I ate its Middle-eastern cousin named Sambusa. The similarity in names is quite striking!
Samosa is considered an Indian delicacy, but its history is far more complex and cosmopolitan than that. It is a historic artefact and is a product of the process of globalisation — the product of influences of the great migrations and interactions that shaped this country.
I was googling on the origin of my favourite snack. I discovered that the samosa actually originates from Central Asia, where they were consumed as early as the 10th century. There, the pyramids were referred to as samsa. Muslim merchants later brought the samosa to India along the ancient trade routes, where it was well received due to its quick preparation time and convenient shape. After cooking samosas around fires during the evening camps, traders could then store the triangles in their bags to snack on over the course of the next day’s travels. In the ancient recipes left behind by these Arab cooks, the pastries were referred to as “sanbusaj,” “sanbusaq,” or “sanbusak,” all of which originate from the Persian “sanbosag.”
The samosa is first mentioned in literature by the Persian historian Abul-Fazl Beyhaqi (995-1077): it was called Sambusak or Sambusaj. He describes a dainty delicacy, served as a snack in the great courts of the mighty Ghaznavid empire. The fine pastry was filled with minced meats, nuts and dried fruit and then fried till the pastry was crisp. But the samosa was to be transformed as it followed the epic journey made by successive waves of migrants into India. Once in India the samosa was taken up and tailored to local tastes, becoming the world’s first fast food.
The famous explorer Ibn Battuta, who traveled extensively through the Islamic lands in the 14th century, noted in 1334 the “sanbusak”: a thin envelope of wheat stuffed with minced meat, almonds, pistachios, walnuts, onions, and spices and then fried in ghee (clarified butter). According to Battuta, the snack was even served at the court of Muhammad bin Tughluq, the Sultan of Delhi at the time. The royal Indian poet Amir Khusrau observed that the princes and nobility of Delhi greatly savored the samosa prepared from meat, ghee, onion and so on. In the Ain-i-Akbari (16th century), the samosa is mentioned as a favourite snack.
The samosa is endlessly adaptable and India introduced its own spices — adding coriander, pepper, caraway seeds, ginger and more. The filling changed, too, with vegetables often replacing meat. These days most samosas are filled with potato and flavoured with green chillies — the ingredients introduced by Portuguese traders in the 16th Century. Potato used to be the core of Inca empire’s food pyramid and the Portuguese called it batata. The batata managed to change our favourite sambusak too. Today’s samosa is no longer a meat-filled savoury to go with pulao.
The samosa has continued to evolve since then. Everywhere you go in India it is different. Samosas vary from region to region, and even from shop to shop as samosa-makers compete for custom. In eastern India, the cooking technique of samosa (or singara) is different in the use of hing (Asafoetida) in the dough and in the way potatoes are prepared. In Bengal, the potato is not mashed but chopped into small cubes before it goes inside the dough parcel. In northern India, potato is mashed and cooked with spices before it goes inside the dough. In the South, samosas are made with local spices and the filling has onion, carrots, cabbage and curry leaves. They are usually eaten without chutney.
As time passed, the samosa came to be regarded as one of India’s most treasured and iconic culinary creations. 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 and samosas are always yummy!