Denver's Samosa Trail: Four Styles From Four Countries
A world of samosas, clockwise from the top right: cheese filled sambosek from Amira Bakery; two kinds of samosas from Little India; East African samosas from Ambli; and a Tajik samsa from David's. A big tub of mango chutney occupies the middle.
If there’s an Indian restaurant that doesn’t peddle samosas, I don’t want to know about it. And if samosas aren’t part of your regular order at your favorite Indian eatery, it’s time to get with the program — a program that dates back hundreds of years and spans thousands of miles. Although the samosa didn’t originate in India — most historians give Persia props for the original “sanbosag” (documented in writing more than a thousand years ago) — that country has made the triangular treat a ubiquitous guest at every meal from curbside chow-downs to lavish wedding feasts.
And the samosa hasn’t stayed put: The fried or baked pastry pocket travels well and has become a staple in multiple cultures beyond the borders of India. It would take a host of ethnographers, anthropologists and linguists to fully explore the migration and evolution of the samosa, but a website called the Samosa Connection (samosa-connection.com) breaks down the widespread snack into three historic “avatars”: the samsa, the sambusek and the samosa, whose territories range from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean to the mountains of Tajikistan to India itself. Those are great starting points for exploring the variety that has since evolved — and fortunately, they can all be found in Denver, along with more recent configurations on the samosa trail.
Persian restaurants are few and far between in the metro area, and none currently list sanbosag (or other spelling variants) on their menus. But the samosa spread west as well as east from what is now Iran; evidence of that culinary shift can be found at Amira Bakery, 4101 East Evans Avenue, which sells Lebanese-style sambosek loaded with either beef or cheese. The connection is evident in the triangular shape and the puffy, deep-fried texture. These sambosek come without sauce, but the cheese version packs plenty of flavor, with feta-style cheese crumbles blended with herbs and red chile flakes for a tangy, spicy surprise within pastry that’s more tender than crispy. These aren’t easy to come by, however. It took two visits to land an order: The bakery didn’t have any prepped on a Monday visit, but they were back in stock the next day.
Wheat and meat are the staples of the Central Asian countries often lumped together as “the -stans,” where ancient cultures have preserved culinary traditions despite centuries of conquest, most recently by the former Soviet Union. David’s Kebab House, at 970 South Oneida Street, serves the cuisine of Central Asia, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe, including a pretty Tajik samsa baked to a glossy brown and decorated with sesame seeds. This version of the samosa, twice the size of Amira’s sambosek, maintains its triangular form but trades the fried shell for a more delicate laminated wrapper, more akin to fat-leavened flaky pastries. The beef-and-onion filling is mild and lightly seasoned, and the accompanying sauce is strong, almost ketchupy, with tomato paste.
Sauces and chutneys are as integral to Indian cuisine as the samosa itself. At the Little India at 2390 South Downing Street, an order of two styles of the appetizer came with four dips, each with a distinct color and flavor. Little India’s Jaipuri samosas are small, crunchy and vegetarian. They’re made up of a thin layer of phyllo-like pastry smeared with spiced lentils and folded over on itself several times — like the paper footballs made by school kids — and then fried to a deep brown and sprinkled with a salty spice mix so that each shatteringly crunchy bite begins with a burst of garam masala. A side of tangy yogurt chutney mellows the first hit of salt. Punjabi samosas are the more familiar style, fat and filled with a curried-potato-and-pea mixture. These began life in a triangular form — a tetrahedron, to be more geometrically precise — but the filling bulges the four sides into something less precisely geometrical and more chubby and over-inflated. The shell is crispy at the corners and softer along the sides, sporting blisters like a wonton from the hot oil.
Immigrants from India settled in East Africa more than 100 years ago, bringing their cuisine with them — including samosas. Pariza Mehta, co-owner of the internationally influenced Ambli, at 600 South Holly Street, is the daughter of Gujarati parents whose family has been in Tanzania for generations. Mehta explains that Gujarati samosas were originally vegetarian, but the recipes were adapted to East African ingredients and tastes, so the samosas on Ambli’s menu are stuffed with beef as well as onion and a house garam masala blend that give Ambli’s version, similar in appearance and texture to the Jaipuri equivalent at Little India, a bright burst of flavor enhanced by a vivid green cilantro chutney that’s both tangy and herbal.
Samosas have spread throughout much of Africa, including Ethiopia. Most of Denver and Aurora’s Ethiopian eateries offer various styles (labeled samosas or sambusas), so look for them at Axum and Queen of Sheba on East Colfax Avenue or Arada on Santa Fe Drive. Or head to the African Grill and Bar in Green Valley Ranch for chicken or beef samosas. Owners Sylvester and Theodora Osei-Fordwuo hail from Ghana, on Africa’s west coast, but their menu covers the cuisine of several African regions.
Ancient traders followed the Silk Road and the Spice Road to spread food and crafts throughout the Eastern Hemisphere, but in Denver we can follow our own Samosa Road to map a condensed history of the delicious treat.
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