Food & Drink

Samosas: The ultimate Indian street food

Potato and pea samosas with phyllo-wrapped dough. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
Potato and pea samosas with phyllo-wrapped dough. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
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Never mind that they actually originated in the Middle East. The food that is perhaps the most Indian of all Indian foods, the food most people think of first when they think of Indian foods, is samosas. — Samosas are the ultimate street food. A bit of filling stuffed into dough and fried, small enough that you can eat it with your fingers, is served in one form or another by street vendors all around the world. — But it is in India that it is most popular and best known. The quintessential street food has invaded the menus of even the finest Indian restaurants around the world. — Samosas have two parts, the filling part and the dough part. Fillings can be meat or vegetarian, they can be made of seafood or cheese or nuts and raisins. The dough can be homemade or fashioned out of an already-existing pastry, such as store-bought phyllo sheets, and it can be baked or fried.

I decided to try three different fillings, two homemade doughs and one store-bought, and I fried two and baked one. I also made the two sauces most commonly served with samosas, a spicy mint chutney and a sweet and tangy tamarind chutney.

For my first filling, I went to the best possible source: the Pakistan-born mother of a friend. She gave me a recipe for keema samosas, which are filled with ground meat — in this case, beef.

India, of course, is predominately Hindu, so beef is rarely used there. Indian keema samosas tend to be made with mutton — adult sheep — or lamb. But Pakistan is overwhelmingly Muslim, so their keema samosas are made with beef.

Mother, as it turns out, knows best. The filling was easy to make, and had a delicately balanced, yet just right, mix of simple, comforting flavors. It wasn’t even very hot, but that may be because the green chiles that I bought were almost entirely devoid of heat.

Wrapped in dough and fried, they made a delightful snack. Baked, they would be almost as good and would have fewer calories.

I next made a different kind of keema samosa, this one with ground chicken. The recipe I used for this chicken samosa came from sub-Saharan Africa, where Indian immigrants have settled in great numbers, bringing their marvelous recipes with them.

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This samosa was hotter than the beef ones I made, but it wasn’t overpoweringly hot because, as I believe I mentioned, the green chiles that I bought were almost entirely devoid of heat.

But they had plenty of flavor. Along with garlic and ginger — a standard combination in many Indian foods — they are made with curry powder (definitely not a standard in traditional Indian foods), cayenne, paprika and cilantro, plus onions and peas. They gain additional flavor from an Asian chile sauce. I used sriracha. I’m ecumenical that way.

It was amazingly good. The heat and spice were just right to stand up to the fried dough, and also those magnificent chutneys.

Perhaps the most popular kind of samosa in this country is the one that is filled with spiced potatoes and peas, so, naturally, I decided to make a batch of those, too. These ones I decided to bake, and rather than make more fresh dough, I used store-bought phyllo.

As an experiment, I fried one of these phyllo-wrapped samosas, too. I wouldn’t recommend it. The phyllo was greasy on the outside, and raw on the inside. Baking is definitely the way to go with phyllo.

The potato and pea filling, however, was superb. It is flavored with mustard seeds, the familiar spice mix garam masala and a minced green chile (perhaps I haven’t mentioned that it was almost entirely devoid of heat). I did not use amchur, which is dried mango powder, because I wanted to make the samosas without going to an international food store.

That said, I went to an international food store because I wanted to pick up some ajwain seeds (also known as carom seeds) to use in one of the homemade doughs.

I also used some Indian chili powder, which is made from crushed red peppers and is unrelated to the chili powder Americans use to make chili. It has a rounder, fuller flavor than cayenne pepper, and is also milder, but cayenne is close enough to use — in smaller amounts — if you don’t want to get the Indian chili powder. But get the Indian chili powder if you’re ever at an international food store. It only costs a couple of bucks.

Of course, samosas aren’t samosas without a mint chutney and a tamarind chutney.

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The tamarind requires tamarind pulp, so, yeah, that does require a trip to the international food store (you can buy it frozen). The recipe also calls for jaggery, which is a form of cane sugar that is often used in South Asia, but I just substituted brown sugar instead.

The result was spectacular, maybe even better than the tamarind chutney you get at Indian restaurants.

The thick mint chutney was equally impressive. It is an equal mix of mint and cilantro, plus garlic, salt, lemon juice, a dash of sugar and some minced green chiles.

The chutney had some heat to it, but not as much as you might expect. For obvious reasons.

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