The Samosa Skeptic

Punjabi Samosa - Lacchu Cafeteria v2

Make rolls with meat, if wished, with thin sheets of bread whose ends you need to seal.
Or, a piece of dough, you may use, well kneaded but still soft.
Into thin discs spread it out with a rolling-pin,
And with the fingernail you press the sides to seal.
Into a frying pan pour some good oil and fry them as best you can,
And in a delicate platter put them, where a bowl of pungent mustard in the center sits.
Then eat them with mustard, I’m sure with joy,
For indeed they are the most delicious of all fast food dishes.

– Sanbousa poetry by Ibrahim al-Mosuli, 9th century court singer of Harun al-Rasheed. Recorded in Kitab Al Tabiq, the earliest known Arabic cookbook from the 10th century. Translated by Nawal Nasralluh in Delights from the Garden of Eden (p.378)

Despite being the ”most delicious of all fast food dishes” in medieval Islamic courts, samosas fall into that slim category of savoury snacks that I simply never crave.

I might have been scarred by a few clumsily fried samosas in the past. Whenever someone mentions a samosa, the image that comes to mind is that of a hot and bothered fritter, sweating profusely through its pores, smudging my tongue with uneasy grease. This unpleasant image overrides the many stellar samosa experiences I’ve had in both past and present, and there have been many.

Take my mother’s miniature dal samosas for instance*, their sheer skins stretched taut over a split pigeon pea or mung bean filling. These are reserved for the best of occasions and the best of people, which might be why I’ve not seen one in a painfully long time. But its mum’s Hyderabadi lukmi that makes me weak at the knees. These square sisters of our typical samosas sport a comforting mound of qeema nestled into crust that’s sealed in like ravioli. They make an appearance on special days of Ramadan or Eid or other such occasions that don’t occur frequently enough to have any long-term healing effect on my samosa scars.

Samboosa in Samoon SharjahAnother positive memory has been forged at the 30-year old Mohamadiya cafeteria in the historic district of Sharjah. Vegetable mash arrives wrapped in a shell that blisters up in the oil, leaving behind a fragile lacy skin that crackles at the bite. The cafeteria pulverizes their samosa stash, scatters the rubble across a tender samoon bun (hot dog bun) and splashes them over with a bottled hot sauce of aged red peppers and distilled white vinegar. For a paltry two-dirhams, these perfectly proportioned triangles are worth braving the Dubai-Sharjah traffic for an afternoon snack.

Or a midnight one by the time you get there.

Then there are fritter revelations like Farzi Cafe’s petite duck samosas (pictured below). Plump with moist duck meat and dabbed delicately with plum sauce, these refined treats are worlds apart from the triangular masses of the fryer. Or let’s take Logma’s Chips Oman and salty cream cheese innovation in Box Park. This creative twist is a clever play on old Dubai nostalgia and merits a place alongside nachos and popcorn at local movie theatres. Everything about them, crust to filling, feels right— until you get the bill. A plate of four indulgent triangles leave your wallet feeling skinny at a hefty 32 dirhams. That’s an extortionist 8 dirhams a piece. Or a spirit-crushing 4 dirhams for that last half forcefully wrangled out of your partner’s clutches.

Farzi Cafe Duck Samosa

While the filling is important, I truly believe that it boils down – or sizzles up – to the crust. A stuffing destined for stardom can be ruined by a clammy crust. Now one has to be open-minded to the spectrum of options out there: a skinny spring roll skin that snaps, a blistered sheath that shatters, a biscuit-like capsule that cracks, a shortbread shell that flakes. But a soggy shuck that slumps is simply not on that spectrum.

One of my favourite crusts – and one that has redeemed the world of cafeteria samosas for me again – is from a Sindhi cafeteria called Lacchu (don’t try Googling it – I already did. It’s not listed.) While I haven’t found the actual cafeteria, I’ve often intercepted the delivery boy Deepu** as he cycles around Naif hawking Sindhi/Punjabi-style carom-infused potato samosas. His loot has no samosalings – rather, these tawny hulks sport a firm tush that lets them sit tall and unsupported on a plate. The casing is closer to a baked pie-crust (make no mistake, it’s still deep fried) that holds up well even after a severe drowning in chutney.

The last time I snagged twelve of Deepu’s two-dirham samosas, three of the pack mysteriously vanished in a covert family tasting operation.

Punjabi Samosa - Lacchu Cafeteria

Another samosa variant worth mentioning are the mini dry-lentil samosas at Chappan Bhog. These are the sort of hard-shell samosas that, by virtue of their dry spiced stuffing, keep well for a long, long time. Maybe even until the fall. Or until Christmas, Or until I write my next post, inshallah.

Many people adore these half-bite samosas, but I’m rarely tempted to try. Something about jamming your jaws against a hard, desert-dry crust to find more desert-dry filling on the inside just doesn’t feel right. It loses the joy of textural contrast, the anticipation of cracking through to a moist tender filling, the thrill of watching bits of the soft fresh stuffing drift away into your chutney.

Sorry dad, I know you love these.

Yet, despite this not insignificant list of samosa successes, my mind keeps harking back to the few samosas that failed with Brexit-like irrationality. The nagging thought of encountering a finger-staining grease bomb has put me on guard against samosas that steer their stuffing in my direction. It might take a few more of Deepu’s, maybe a plate (or two) of mum’s, potentially a Farzi duck samosa thrown in for good measure, to erase my sullied samosa memories forever.

* If you were planning to ask me for mum’s dal samosa recipe, please don’t. These are fiercely guarded secrets, just like her biryani and lukmi.
** Deepu can be caught cycling around Naif. It’s worth hanging around in the backstreets to spot him there.

Author: InaFryingPan

With a family legacy of ingenious cooks, a nutritionist and chef-extraordinaire mother, and a father who introduced me to steak and caviar when I could barely reach the table, I had no choice but to acquire a keen awareness of food during my childhood years in Dubai. But it was only after I found myself on a college campus in Philadelphia – far away from home, too cheap as a student to spend on anything other than pizza, and with dorm rooms that had little rat-holes of kitchens if they even had them at all – when I developed a heightened appreciation of food. An appreciation of food that I once ate every night at the dinner table in Dubai, but that was now an entire ocean away. I lusted for the culinary treasures that lay outside the stale walls of my college dining hall, hijacked friends’ kitchens to try my hand at something, anything , remotely edible, and greedily raided different websites in search of highly-rated restaurants. With my move to New York to work for a consulting firm that secretly harbored self-professed foodies, my appreciation transformed into a passion, an addicition. I felt like everyone around me in New York was talking about food: where to get the best cupcakes, pizza slices, banh mi, kati rolls, pho, fried chicken, and every other food item out there that is just a plain old dish in some part of the world, but that’s become hyped to unforeseen proportions in New York. What fuelled my addiction over time was travel to different cities, both for work and play, which gave me unfettered access to the culinary havens of not only New York, but also of DC, Virginia, Chicago, Houston, Vegas, Austin, Seattle and even a little city called Bentonville (Arkansas!). After 9 years away from home, I’ve finally taken the leap to come back to Dubai – with not just an awareness, but genuine appreciation and passionate addiction for what I’d taken for granted as a child. Mom, I’m back to reclaim my seat at your dinner table, and to rediscover this city with its ever-expanding menu of international flavors.

1 thought on “The Samosa Skeptic

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *