The Multinational Samosa & The Mughal Emperor’s Cookbook

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(Image: British Library/ Public Domain)
If you thought your samosa came from India, think again! Cookbooks from across Asia bear testimony to this multinational snack.

Mix together well-cooked mince with the same amount of minced onion and chopped dried ginger, a quarter of those, and half a tūlcha [a measure] of ground garlic and having ground three tūlchas of saffron in rosewater, mix it with the mince together with aubergine pulp. Stuff the samosas and fry (them) in ghee. Whether made from thin course flour bread or from fine flour bread or from uncooked dough, any of the three (can be used) for cooking samosas, they are delicious. 

This Samosa recipe is taken from Niʻmatnāmah-i Nāṣirshāhī or ‘Book of Delights’, a 15th-century cookbook from the Mughal court. It gives a glimpse into the delightful journey of the Samosa through the ages.

Written between 1495 and 1505, the ‘Book of Delights’ was made for the Sultan of Malwa, Ghiyas al-Din Khilji. A warrior-turned-foodie, Sultan Ghiyas gave up his sword after 34 years of fighting. His son could fight his battles from then on – the Sultan wanted to eat and be merry!

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Ghiyas al-Din watches the process of cooking green vegetables (Image: British Library/ Public Domain)

The result was the “Book of Delights”, a labour of love, detailing every recipe which the foodie Sultan ever liked. There are several hundred recipes, whose preparations are illustrated – even featuring portraits of the moustachio’d sultan beaming at his soon-to-be meals. If his grin is not indication enough that the recipe is special, you’ll also see some recipes ending with ‘this is delicious’ or ‘this is a favourite of Ghiyath Shahi’. The book seems to have been written by two authors, the second being the Sultan’s son, Nasir al-Din Shah.

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Ghiyas watching the preparation of rice water (Image: British Library/ Public Domain)

The humble (or mighty – depending on what one would like to call it) Samosa stands out in the memoirs and cookbooks of the Mughal era. It was a royal snack in Akbar’s time (1542-1605), mentioned in the authoritative Gazette of his life and times, the Ain-i-Akbari. The traveller, Ibn Battuta, described Samosas as a staple of the court of Muhammad bin Tuqhlaq.

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Ghiyas watching the preparation of sherbert (Image: British Library/ Public Domain)

The Samosa, like the Book of Delights, has many authors across history. Though ubiquitous with India, its origins are not from the subcontinent. For the Mughals imported them from the Arab world, Persia and Central Asia.

The Samosa is a truly transnational snack. No single country can claim it, though the earliest mention of it is by the Iranian historian, Abul-Fazl Bayhaqi, in the first millennium A.D. It is known to have been popular in parts of Central Asia at the time, in countries like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, where it was called ‘Samsa’. This has led to the belief that the Samosa got its shape from the pyramids of Central Asia.

Cookbooks across Asia mentioned the Samosa. In Andalusia, a 13th-century cookbook gives a recipe for a ‘triangular parcelled pastry’ called Sanbusak. In Turkey, a similar snack is called Samsa; in Afghanistan, Sambosa, and in Iran, Sambusas. In Israel, a vegetarian ‘Sambusak’ filled with chickpeas has been consumed as part of the Sephardic Sabbath since the 13th century.

Over the centuries, the Samosa became a staple snack of the South Asian household. It became so familiar that perhaps, the art of its making went unappreciated. This is what filmmaker Niresh Patel had in mind when he made ‘A Love Supreme’. As he said of the craft of making it:

Cooking here is like a martial art of ballet but with hands instead of feet.

It’s a video homage to the art of turning plain ingredients to a Samosa. The back story is cutting – Niresh’s mother had developed Rheumatism after working for twenty years as a machinist in knitwear factories, and would no longer have been able to make Samosas after a point of time. The film captures an aspect of Niresh’s life that may be lost forever – and he wanted to show the world how much of an art making the Samosa really is. As the film ends the words “Dedicated to my Mother, her Mother and your Mother” appear.

For Niresh, it’s a symbol of his mother’s love. For many others, it’s one of opportunity. Newspapers cover stories of Samosa entrepreneurs – who start out life making it as a street snack, but scale up their efforts until they own chains of Samosa-making ventures or craft artisan samosas in five-star hotels.

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Image: 7MB

The craze for the Samosa runs deep in student communities. In Montreal, the McGill University has made Samosas part of many fundraisers – to the point where students started a Facebook community to locate where the nearest Samosa event is happening at any one point in time.

As delicious as Samosas are, you might be wondering whether they are healthy. The answer might deter you. From the Maida to the oil to the potatoes, the manner by which Samosas are commonly prepared might be a bit much for your heart. But that’s why some websites display recipes on how to make Samosas healthy again (one tip is to mix the maida with atta, adding more fibre), and you have no shortage of options to explore from.

The iconic, triangular snack of Asia has been around for centuries. Every bite you take of a Samosa is a testimony to a global snack – and the art of the person who crafted it. History has never been so delicious.

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