I couldn’t help but salivate. Placed on the counter of a Dhaka snack shop was a basket with some of the largest samosas I have ever seen. The smell of freshly-fried food wafted in the air. I had had a hearty lunch. But the temptation was irresistible — I asked for a plate of shingara, the word Bengalis use for the samosa. That was a mistake. The shopkeeper summoned his assistant, who proceeded to place before me a steel plate with triangular objects that seemed to be miniature versions of the samosas that had caught my fancy.
With diced potatoes, lightly sautéed peas and cauliflower, a light flavouring of cumin and asafoetida intermingling with the sweetness of a solitary raisin, the shingaras were delicious. But they were not what my heart was set on.
I had had too many samosas with the spicy mashed potato stuffing to be unaware of the difference between the north Indian and Bengali varieties. But in Bangladesh, I seemed to have undergone a brain fade. I decided to make the most of the situation and asked the shop assistant to get me the larger variety.
It turned out that there was much more to the roughly conical parcels than their size. Their crusty edges broke up to reveal a filling of lightly-spiced mutton mince which had a hint of sweetness as well as an occasional tang. My hosts in Dhaka later told me that in Bangladesh, the shingara is akin to its variant in parts of West Bengal while the samosa is a larger envelope — at most times, similar in size to the one in north India — filled with a meat stuffing.
The subcontinent has known samosas for centuries. In his travelogue, the 14th century Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta describes a meal at the court of Muhammad bin Tughlak where triangular pies, sambusaks, filled with minced meat, almonds, pistachios and walnuts were served before the main course.
Like most food items, there are a variety of accounts about its origins. In Feasts and Fasts (2014), Colleen Taylor Sen refers to Arab cookbooks dating to the 10th and 11th centuries. The word sambusak, she avers, “may have come from the Arabic se, or three, referring to the triangular shape, and ambos, a kind of bread. A 13th century Baghdadi cookbook, Kitab al Tabikh has recipes for three versions. “One is filled with meat flavoured with coriander, cumin, pepper, cinnamon, mint and powdered almonds; the second with halwa;…a third with sugar and almonds”.
Food historian KT Achaya has a somewhat different interpretation. He believes that the deep-fried snack was an indigenous item. But it was enriched with stuffing brought through contacts with different parts of West Asia. Taylor Sen, too, believes that the culinary give-and-take fostered by centuries-old trade interactions between India and West Asia played a big role in the samosa’s life history.
The now ubiquitous potato was very likely a relatively recent addition — by most accounts, it did not become part of the subcontinent’s popular culinary oeuvre before the 20th century. We are all the better for it. Imagine a samosa chaat without the chickpeas, chutneys and the spices intermingling with the potato-laden pastries.
But at times, I do long for the large mince envelopes I had in Dhaka.