Samosa: Unravelling the history of Ghiyath Shahi's culinary adventure

Samosa: Unravelling the history of Ghiyath Shahi's culinary adventure
Samosa | Photo: Shutterstock Images

Flavour and fervour- that’s the heartbeat of India, from a raja to rank. What a combination it has been since time immemorial! Take the case of Ghiyath Shah,a fierce warrior general who wielded his sword to increase his father’s Malwa empire in central India. But after being crowned Sultan in 1469 AD, he sheathed his sword and became an epicurean who could have been the envy of Louis XIV, the Sun King of France.

Ghiyath Shahi’s 30-year reign was a mix of flavour and fervour. Six centuries ago, he integrated art, architecture and water harvesting through his Jahaz Mahal (palace resembling a ship) and Hindola Mahal (palace that gently swayed), and many such opulent structures. The new Sultan understood the need for storing water for the people of Mandu, the new capital, after shifting from Dhar.

Sense and sensuality were at play in this bon vivant’s court. An exquisite creation is Ni’matnama (Book of Delights), a piece of art which was treasured in the library of Tipu Sultan’s vast collection of books, and later taken away as ‘spoils of victory’ by the East India Company to the British Library, London.

Ni’matnama is a delightful, and beguiling, fusion of flavours of the five senses – an ode to the olfactory pleasures that includes cuisine! The 50 exquisitely detailed miniature paintings give the sybarite Sultan’s perspective of how to enjoy life.

The humble samosa of today makes a grand appearance in Ni’matnama. The street food of today has been glorified in 10 gastronomic creative ways. The detailed description of how to make that perfect samosa includes a warning -- to not to forget the saffron, fried aubergine, ginger et al.

This begs the question -- what is a samosa and why has it been feted for over a millennia? A quick walk-through in history tells us that samosa -- or Sambushka -- first finds mention in Tarikh-e-Beyhaghi written by Iranian historian Abolfazl Beyhaqi (995-1077 CE).

The origin lies in the Fertile Crescent of Turkey-Mesopotamia-Iran -- with the cultivation of grass-seeds that were the forerunners of barley and wheat, converting hunter-gatherers to farmer-settlers around 12,000 BCE, and the dawn of civilization.

By the time the first millennium was ending, the Fertile Crescent had given rise to the Middle Eastern cuisine. Sanbosaq (etymologically related to Sambushka) and the pyramidal patty of Egypt, Samsa, find mention in the early medieval Persian texts – as do Sanbusak, Sanbusaq and Sanbusaj.

Essentially snack items for the Silk Route traveller-traders, these were small triangle shaped patties filled with keema (mincemeat) and preservatives for long journeys. History records that’s how the stuffed triangle travelled from Central Asia to North Africa, East Asia and South Asia – from the present-day Middle East with traders and adventurers through Afghanistan to the northern region of the Indian subcontinent.

Ibn Batuta, the Morroccan traveller, savoured a snack item called Sambusak - triangular pastry packed with mince, peas, pistachios, almonds and other tasty fillings – in Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s court (sometimes in 1334-40 CE), as recorded in his globe-trotter’s account Rihala.

But the term samosa makes its appearance in Amir Khusrau’s riddle (around 1300 CE).

“Samosa kyun na khaya? Joota kyun na pehna?

Talaa na tha.”

[Why wasn’t the samosa eaten? Why wasn’t the shoe worn? The samosa wasn’t fried (talaa). The shoe didn’t have a sole (also called talaa).]

Khusrau was a Sufi scholar, musician (invented the sitar) and a favourite disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya during Tughlaq era.

This little snack made its way through the hearts of a lot of people around the globe -- from Egypt to Libya to Central Asia and finally, India. The name slightly varies across the continent, and so does the stuffing.

The flaky thin-crusted Sambushka -- filled with meat, pistachio etc, and flavoured with saffron and other spices -- has turned into the fried samosa made of ubiquitous mashed potato filled roti cone (made from ground wheat or its maida variant) across the length and breadth of our land.

There are variants, like the tastier and smaller Bengal Singara cousin filled with seasonal cauliflower pieces garnished with peanuts and raisins. Even chicken and mutton stuffing are now in vogue, harking back to the Silk Route days.

So, how to make a samosa? It’s quite simple. Make a round roti. Cut it into two. Hold one half between your thumb and index finger. Rub some water to join the ends to make it into a cone.

Fill the cone with mincemeat, potatoes, or anything that pleases the taste. Some also fill it with cooked noodles, while winters come up with stuffing of succulent green peas. The most popular is the mashed potatoes with masalas (spices).

Now close the cone. The golden pyramid-shaped snack is ready to be fried. Do the same with the other half of the cut roti.  

(The author runs a small home kitchen, Luchee Food Story)

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