A brief history of the samosa

November 26, 2014 11:30 am
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Ubiquitous, delicious and wonderfully simple, the samosa is rightly given a prominent place in Indian cuisine – and here at Cafe Asia we’ve been making samosas for over 30 years. Its marriage and variety of textures and flavours make for worldwide popularity. Its ingredients – usually a combination of subtle spices and vegetables or meat in a pastry triangle – make for a nutritious and satisfying dish.

A snack with complex roots…

Despite being regarded as a staple of Indian cooking, the samosa’s roots are decidedly more complex. Its origins can be traced in gastronomic literature to 10th century Middle Eastern cuisine. Early medieval Persian texts make reference to the sanbosag, an early relative of the samosa and an etymological cousin of the Persian pyramid, samsa.

Throughout Arabic cooking history, sanbosag, sanbusaq and sanbusaj are all present: regional and dialectal varieties of a dish travelling by trade routes from North Africa to East Asia. These depictions tell of small mince-filled triangles, eaten by travelling merchants around campfires and packed in saddlebags as a snack for the next day’s journey, according to the Oxford Companion to Food.

It is thought that India and Pakistan first inherited the samosa when these cooks from the Middle East migrated for employment in the kitchens of Muslim nobility. Ibn Battuta, a medieval Moroccan-Berber traveller – regarded as one of history’s greatest – notes a meal in the court of Muhammad bin Tughluq, 14th century Sultan of Delhi: “sambusak, a small pie stuffed with minced meat, almonds, pistachio, walnuts and spices”.

Likewise, Sufi scholar Amir Khusro (whose poetry records considerable volumes of Indian cultural history) wrote of the samosa in royal South Asian courts in the year 1300. Earlier still, a 9th century poem by Ishaq ibn Ibrahim-al-Mausili celebrates the sanbusaj [1]. Of course, over centuries of gradual evolution and change – not least with Muslim rule over North India subsiding in the Middle Ages, and the vegetarian ethics of Hinduism shaping more of its eating cultures – the samosa eventually became the meal of today.

A snack that transcends the class system…

An interesting note here is the breadth of social classes making and eating the samosa, with the dish recorded in both trade routes and noble houses. Its presence in royal courts was not a sign of luxury, nor did it accompany traders purely by necessity alone, but the samosa proudly wore both the grand stamp of royal approval and the honest humility of day-to-day staple eating. Herein lies a hint at the dish’s continued, unwavering popularity and success, even hundreds of years into its lifetime – its universality.

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Street food for all: The samosa is eaten throughout India and beyond. (By Surya Prakash.S.A. (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A snack that offers a wealth of variety…

Today that universality is found at least in part in its range of variations. Even in India, its adopted but now traditional home, alterations to the main ingredients are commonplace across territories and regions. The sweet options can contain pomegranate, raisins, mango or diced almonds; the savoury cauliflower and spinach; the meat-filled keema and the spicy ginger and chilli.

Further removed relatives are found across the world, having reached far-flung corners by the same emigration as its ancestors or by the widespread appeal of contemporary Indian cooking. Portugal, Brazil and Portuguese Africa (via Goa’s Portuguese history) have meat-filled chamuças and pastéis; Bangladeshi shingara are often stuffed with beef liver; Middle Asian street vendors will sell Uyghur-style samosas with a heavier bread dough and a lamb and onion centre; Africa’s eastern Horn reserves sambusa for the local observations of Ramadan and Mesqel.

And of course the samosa appeals to Europe too – it is easily among the most popular Indian snacks in restaurants, supermarkets, corner shops and street kiosks. The EU market is primarily interested in the traditional forms, sometimes vegetarian and sometimes meat-filled, but the more exotic variations must not be far behind.

 

[1] The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden

Featured image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

About Emily Knight

Emily Knight is a writer and marketer based in Bristol. A Cambridge University Linguistics graduate, she runs Bristol Bites – an online guide to Bristol’s food and drink scene – in addition to various freelance writing and marketing projects.

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