The Singara trail: exploring the roots of Bengali samosas and its global family

Ahem...

Scrumptious singara, piping hot are you
with innards of narkel, badam and of course, alu
From paka dekha to parar adda, of all trades you are the jack
Oh! the quintessential Bengali snack!

Sounds like Baikuntha Mallick? No, this is composed by yours sincerely.

As I noshed my way into a bowlful of muri and singara last evening, I was having deep thoughts about how these ubiquitous munchies came into being to grace our addas. 

Singara, in my mind, is fundamentally Bengali; the must-have mate of any cha-er-dokan tete-a-tete or the mandatory companion to a couple of rosogollas that greet you during any social evening- visits to Bengali homes. 

However, this supposedly indigenous guy is not only an emigrant hiding in a native attire, it in fact has it's cousins all over the world. Not surprising, I think, as the simple pleasures of life are the same everywhere. You make a dough, flatten it up, fill it with little bits of savory goodies and relish the deliciousness. Honest to goodness satisfaction!

  • Sambusak - Let's begin at the very beginning to explore the family tree. Singara, or samosa, as it's known all over India, has it's origins in the Middle East, prior to even 10th century. The name derives from the Persian word 'sanbosag' or 'sambusak'. The 'sambusak' is a hugely popular snack in the Middle East and is filled up with anything ranging from ground lamb, beef and chicken to cheese (the feta-like crumbly varieties), chick-peas or spinach. They are then sprinkled with sesame or poppy-seeds to give the bites that extra flavorful crunch. The name varies slightly depending on the regions, like 'sambusa' in the Horn of Africa, or 'samsa' in Central Asia. 

The Lebanese delis or joints typically serve it in a platter along with other delights     like falafel balls, kibbeh, pita and hummus. The pastry is more light and flakey than our desi varieties and the filling is sans any spice, simply tossed with onions and pine-nuts. Eating them is just like that Pringles Chips advertisement: you can never, ever stop at one.

Apart from the samosa and it's homophones, there are other cousins in this lineage that don more eclectic ensembles.

  • Empanada – These Latin American amigos are baked or fried and are seasoned with more robust spices than it's Middle Eastern counterparts, like cumin, coriander, chilli and oregano. You typically make the stuffing with ground beef and mix it up with onions, garlic and bell peppers for the added kick. However, an incredible variation of this is the one made with potato and chorizo – a high voltage Spanish pork sausage with a fiery red color and distinctive smokey flavor that is imparted by the dried, smoked red peppers that is mixed into the filling. It embodies the word 'Latin' – the passion, the swagger and the bold, almost brazenness of the taste! 
  • Pastel - Meaning 'pastry' in Portuguese, this is the same dish with a different label. A more risqué version of this is rustled up by the folks in Cape Verde, with a tuna fish filling that is so spicy that they call it the 'Pastel com Diabo Dentro' (literally meaning 'pastry with the devil inside'). It is typically served with a piquant cabbage or salsa topping to balance the heat.
  • Calzone – This chubby Italian donna can be as diverse as your wildest pizza fantasy. It is really a baked/ fried pizza, stuffed with a variety of typical toppings, specially ham and cheese. Dipped in the marinara sauce, one is enough to make for a hearty and delicious quick lunch.
  • Pupusa - I ran into this El Salvadorian beauty in a no-frill ethnic restaurant in the Washington D.C. neighborhoods. Pupusa is a thick corn tortilla stuffed with cheese (queso), cooked and seasoned pork meat (chicharrón) and refried beans (frijoles refritos). Eat it dipped in a salsa verde and make sure you wash it down with a piquant margarita. It might be as close as you can get to saying 'Aloha' to the golden beaches of Costa del Sol. 

And now, on to home grounds. 

Back home, there are samosas and there are singaras. Samosas are really various interpretations of the 'Punjabi kudis' – big, bold and spicy. The potato inside is mashed up and is tempered with dhaniya, jeera, garam masala and chaat masala and made fragrant with chopped dhaniya. As for singara, they are the bhadralok in spirit. Smaller than the samosas, the filling is somewhat sweet, made with little cubes of potatoes, badam and narkel kuchi and spiked with bhaja mashla. Come winter, and they get a change of heart, with fulkopi and karai-shunti added for the unique resplendence. Fry them up in ghee if you really want to put your heart in overdrive.

They are worth it.

Just like you cannot pair wrong wines with fish and meat, you have to stick to masala-chai with samosas, and bhanr-er-cha with singaras. You are not a gourmet if you mix up the two!

I cannot conclude this rambling without mentioning the almost-late lamented 'mangsher singara'!! I don't know who still sells them in our city, but if you do, then won't you please, please tell me? 

And lastly, here is my opinion about the 5 best joints in Kolkata for samosas and singaras -

Samosas - 

  • Tewari Sweets – Bara Bazar
  • Maharani – Deshapriya Park
  • Balwant Singh dhaba – Bhawanipore
  • Gupta Brothers – New Alipore
  • Haldiram – Exide crossing

Singaras -

  • Deshabandhu Mishtanna Bhandar – Bara Bazar
  • Balaram and Radharaman Mullick – Bhawanipore
  • Mrityunjoy Ghosh & Sons – Sarat Bose Road
  • VIP Sweets – Salt Lake
  • Putiram – College Street

Apart from this list, I HAVE to mention the singara that you get in the trains around Bardhaman station. Smell the greasy shal-pata while taking a bite, sip a chai-garam and watch the world going by from the window.

You're welcome.