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WAX & WANE WITH NEERJA: LET’S DO THIS TOGETHER

As the world shrinks into the palm of my hand, I came to learn that what is widely considered a quintessentially Indian street snack with its tightly packed spicy goodness, has come to us from across the world, centuries ago!

We’ve been wrapped together by a stuffed triangle, the Samosa and I.

Whilst I was practising the art of folding Sammy, my name for the already multi-named samosa, I was wondering about its origins.

The fact is, that the ubiquitous samosa, considered bad for health and now just lowly fast food, had its origins in the ancient empires of the Iranian plateau at the very start of civilisation! 

Gastronomic literature of the 10th century mentions a sanbosag from the Middle East and a pyramidal pastry samsa from Persia. Tiny mince-filled triangles eaten by travelling merchants… what began as a tasty titbit for ancient Persian emperors is now enjoyed in virtually every country on earth! 

The humble samosa, as you can see a great traveller, may have come from Central Asia, but it has been around North Africa, East Asia and South Asia as different, yet similar names and forms: sambusa, sambusak, samusa, samoosa, sambuseh the soft, crispy, flaky, thick or thin, fried or baked, filled with a variety of delectable seafood, cheeses, meats or vegetables, dry fruits or herbs, sweet or savoury infused with aromatic, flavourful spices. It arrived in India, carefully preserved and packed in the saddlebacks of international merchants.

One of the earliest mentions for it reaching India is by Ibn Batuta the medieval Moroccan traveller, visiting the court of Muhammad bin Tughlaq, in the 14th century, where he was served the sambusak , a triangular pastry with mince peas, pastas, almonds and spices presented after the sherbet, in the third course of the banquet.

Later, the Sufi scholar, musician and poet Amir Khusro in 1300, writes a riddle about the newly minted samosa. 

Samosa kyun na khaaya? (Why was the Samosa not eaten?) 

Joota kyun na pehnaa? (Why wasn’t the shoe worn?) 

Talaa nahin tha! (The samosa wasn’t fried, talaa; and the shoe didn’t have a sole, talaa.) 

Even in India our samosa is known by several names: shingara, luqmi, kagazi samosa, patti samosa, chamuca… In its changing avatars, it has transformed, continuously adapting to the broad or subtle changes of place, produce and palate. But it has persevered! 

This is it.” I think to myself as I gently lower my folded samosa from the palm of my hand into the kadai. 

The threatened lockdown is now a reality and I try to push away the panic I am feeling. We are right back to where we started over a year ago. Just more exhausted, more disoriented, angrier. Yes, ANGRY – angry when I see the throngs of crowds at the Kumbh Mela, the election rallies – as though a lockdown is like selective amnesia, to be used as and when needed.

I look down at my humble samosa as it bubbles away in the hot oil and can’t help but smile as the metaphor hits me. We are no more in “trying” times rather we are more in “frying” times and through all the chaos and insecurity of not knowing what lays ahead, we need to remain expectant of a better future. Although this time may seem to harden the crusts of our outsides, we must always remember to preserve and protect the soft and wonderfully delicious inside.

As I savour my hot samosas and steaming coffee, I can’t help but wish for a gentle rain to douse the heat of this moment and of this time.

Neerja Shah

Former Editor of Elle India & TV Producer

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