We Say Samosa, They Say Sambousek

Many moons ago, as a new bride I was being hosted (and pampered) by the hubby’s college mate and his family to a traditional, vegetarian home-made lunch on a visit to Chennai. I was quite thrilled on hearing that the dessert to be served up next was a house special, made by our friend’s maternal grandma, who had come visiting. 

With rising anticipation, I waited for the sweet endings, and lo and behold, the said dessert was taken out with a flourish, from stately-looking stainless steel dabbas, but with deflating consequences for moi. While I was waiting for something exotic (read: untried and new, actually) the ‘cheat sweet’ turned out to be Arisa Pitha, as we know it in Odisha, and which any Odia has eaten his/her way through childhood and beyond. It is so much a part of our culture that besides being part of the Maha Prasad at the Jagannath Temple in Puri, it also used to be packed in the days of yore, which my mother recalls as part of the bride’s food shagun, along with boondi/puffed rice laddoos and triangular nimkis. 

In Tamil, it is known as Adirasam, but you know what the bard said about ‘what’s in a name’, etc? In this case, it did taste the exact same, though I proclaimed to my Chennai friends that while it was very good, we had a similar ‘version’ back home. 

To say it was an anti-climax to a perfect meal, after all the gorgeous sambar, rasam, poriyal, varuval, kootu, aloo korma, appalam, pickles and chutneys, and a mound of white rice topped with ghee, was an understatement. Why was I disappointed that day? I suspect that it had a lot to do with spotting the old familiar, while expecting something completely novel and out of the ordinary. 

Much later, when my food horizons expanded beyond Bhubaneswar and Delhi, I discovered that these flattened sweet discs, deep brown to dark chocolate-hued (thanks to the caramelised jaggery that it was made of, besides rice flour and often with a good pinch each of cardamom powder and in some versions, coated with sesame seeds) are quite ubiquitous, going by their presence across the length and breadth of India. 

For instance, in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, you will most certainly find Ariselu in the traditional Andhra/Telugu sweets section. And Arisa Pitha, as we Odias call it, is known and widely available as Adirasam in Tamil Nadu (it’s a Diwali special for most Tamilians), Kajjaya in Karnataka, Sirsa in Chhattisgarh, and Anarsa in Maharashtra. 

What unites these varied names is the common recipe of making a dough of liquid, caramelised jaggery (after boiling it in a little water for a bit) and rice flour, with cardamom powder and pepper added. The dough is then pinched out into discs, flattened on a ghee-lined banana leaf and deep-fried in ghee or oil, as the choice may be. 

It is that similar feeling of familiarity which greeted me in Sentosa Island when I spotted, with a pleasant surprise, Malabar spinach or Pui Saag on my plate of Singaporean Schezwan noodles. Like any eastern Indian, I am familiar with Pui Shaager Chorchori, as the Bengalis would have it, with plump-sized pumpkin, potato and brinjal pieces sauteed with these glorious greens along with ginger paste and spices or Poi Saagaw Rai as we make it in Odisha, with veggies - including potatoes - and the thick and viscous Malabar spinach stalks and mustard paste, with the leaves being added at the end. So, I felt a definite sense of déjà vu coming across these noodles at a bustling QSR joint just outside the Sentosa Underwater World. Having never encountered it in noodles, I asked my Singaporean hosts how this (to my mind then) miracle happened, only to be told it was one of the most found greens in Singapore. 

A few years ago, my wise and older self wasn’t too surprised to find a fish head curry cooked with okra and eggplant in Kuala Lumpur, by Bangladeshi immigrants turned food shack owners. The fish head, shunned by most cuisines, especially those from the Western world, finds acceptance in most southeast Asian cuisines, especially India, China, Singapore, and Malaysia, the latter two which have seen an assimilation of different cuisines and cultures. 

Potol Dolma


For that matter, another such gem from the Mediterranean repertoire, the Dorma or Dolma (Turkish for stuffed) bears a striking resemblance to the Bengali special Potoler Dolma, pointed gourd stuffed with either a vegetarian filling like paneer, or Cholar Dal or even nuts/dried fruits or a non-vegetarian filling like minced fish and prawn, seasoned with spices. It is widely believed by food historians that this dish was brought into Kolkata by Armenian migrants. While the Med version would have the grape vine leaves stuffed with either ground beef, lamb along with nuts and dried fruits, the vegetable commonly used in Bengali cuisine is pointed gourd. 

And by now, the Sambousek story is common folklore. Sambousek, or samosa as we know it, was brought in by rulers from Persia (now Iran) and from the middle east to India and was then locally adapted, with vegetarian fillings like potato and peas, and with further variations ike peanuts, cauliflower, and chopped coconut being added to the Bengali singara. Bengalis sneer down at the north Indian Aloo Samosa, as the potato filling is most often a bit thick, and with not much flavour, while in Kolkata and Bhubaneswar too, you will find potato with skin and chopped into tiny pieces fried, and then filled into the pastry. 

In Hyderabad, the Patti Samosa is a crispier, thinner version with a chopped carrot, beans, and mint leaves filling. Lukhmi is a similar snack from the Nizami cuisine stable, but thicker and square shaped with mostly a meat filling, though now vegetarian versions are commonly served in restaurants in Hyderabad. 

Ultimately, a human possesses the same number of taste buds and gustatory cells, so whether he calls it Dolma in Turkey or Potoler Dorma in Kolkata, Samosa in Delhi or Sambousek in the Middle East, the end is the same: the eternal quest for food and good food.