The Samosa Trail
The samosa and chai or tea are the best travel buddies you will find when you make your way through India. And it seems they served the same purpose through history too!
– The name Sambusak as the samosa is called in West Asia, comes from the Arabic word ‘Se’ which means three, referring to the three sides and ‘Ambos’ which is a kind of a bread
One of the earliest references to the samosa comes from an Arab cookbook from the 10th– 11th century CE. The sambusak, as it was called (and still is in the region) seemed to have been a snack popular among the traveling merchants, who often sat around campfires nibbling on these small mince-filled triangles.
Food historian Colleen Taylor Sen in her book Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, states that the word sambusak may have come from the Arabic se which means three, referring to the three sides and ambos which is a kind of a bread. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, the popularity of the sambusak was thanks to the convenience of carrying them. They were easy to pack into saddlebags and took care of the next day’s journey!
The snack was not just popular, it was already versatile. A thirteenth-century Baghdadi cookbook, Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Dishes), offers recipes for three versions of the sambusak. One, filled with meat and flavored with coriander, cumin, pepper, cinnamon, mint and pounded almonds; the second with halwa; and a third with sugar and almonds.
In fact the sambusak, sanbosag and the sanbusaq as it was varyingly called, finds frequent mention through history. It was probably through the merchants who traveled on the old silk route or the Arab traders who traded along the Indian coast, that the samosa came to India.
– Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta refers to the sambusak (samosa) being served in the court of the Delhi Sultanate ruler Muhammad bin Tughluq in the 14th century CE
The first reference to the snack in India comes from the chronicles of the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta in the 14th century CE. He makes a note of a meal in the court of Muhammad bin Tughluq, and refers to the sambusak- ‘a small pie stuffed with minced meat, almonds, pistachio, walnuts and spices’. According to food historian Colleen Taylor Sen, ‘the samosa is mentioned by the Persian historian Abul-Fazl Beyhaqi, one of the Navratnas of Akbar's court, in the 16th Century as sanbusa or qutab (a Turkic word still used in Azerbaijan for samosa). Abul- Fazl describes it as ‘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 it was crisp.’
Today there are more kinds of samosa than you can count on your fingertips. The purely vegetarian, potato filled, popular variety is probably an Indian innovation. But given the fact that the potato itself came to India only in the 17th century CE (and was made popular, much later), means that the street variety of samosa is of a more recent origin.
– Did You Know
Over the last few decades, many new versions of the samosa have been cooked up, be it the local variants like the singara in West Bengal, patti samosa in Gujarat, paneer samosa in Punjab or even the chowmein samosas and pasta samosas you may come across!