Samosas: An Illicit Love Affair
Like many of you, this week I logged on to one of those big Houseparty chats for the first time - in this case to connect with all my Goan cousins spread across the diaspora exploiting that for the first time, all of us - from Canada to New Zealand via Hanger’s Lane - were free simultaneously. At some point, we realised that each one of us was surreptitiously eating some kind of snack and the chat eventually drifted to samosas, as is wont to happen when you put six Goans in the same virtual room.
We all have different mothers but share the same grandmother, who is widely acknowledged by more than one branch of the family to have been the most accomplished cook they knew. My eldest cousin, who lived with her in Manor House, recalls her cooking vividly. “I remember the minced meat and onions piled high - Mai had a production line system, we all helped out”. Another cousin has been the beneficiary of my grandmother’s cooking - her mother, my uncle’s wife, was the person who studied her most carefully and out of the whole family has been able to replicate her samosas and biryani to an impressive, if not perfect, level. As for myself, I don’t remember my grandmother’s samosas and my mum never learnt how to make them, so I always associate them with the mixed feelings of forced family get-togethers.
As I was reading Sharan Dhaliwal’s love letter to samosas, I found myself nodding in many places - not just in solidarity with her greed but also how they were the unspoken highlight of family gatherings, and often justified the gathering itself. Like Lorraine Bracco’s character in Goodfellas, drunk on a cocktail of Italian names, I would be introduced to myriad aunties, young and old, whose exact familial ties I was never quite sure of, and uncles improbably always called James, Jimmy, Jude or Jacinto. All the kisses, all the small talk I would have to provide, were offset by the lure of samosas.
Sharan is the editor of a brilliant magazine called Burnt Roti dedicated to South Asian lifestyle and diaspora. Some time ago we decided I would write a guide for Burnt Roti on samosas, (which is why I’ve never done it for Eater London) and if there is an opportunity to do this post-pandemic, a samosa crawl is one of the first things on my list. Sharan is a well known samosa fiend, and I knew that I would publish anything she would write on the topic. This is not a recipe piece, in fact it is a bittersweet anti-recipe piece, a recipe-in-potential piece, but there is a helpful list of samosa shops in London at the end, some of which are still open and will hopefully be open for years to come.
Finally a note on categorisation: I got in trouble recently for suggesting samosas are dumplings. I would like to say it doesn’t matter if samosas are dumplings or dumplings are samosas. To compare them diminishes neither, but only elevates them in solidarity to highest possible form of food.
Samosas: An Illicit Love Affair
“If you eat another samosa, you will turn into one”
Sure, we’ve all heard variations of that platitude from family members, but I’m here to brag. Unfortunately aren’t any statistics to prove this, but I’m very sure I’m the person who has had those words uttered to them the most, in the entire world.
Call me dramatic. Please.
It started with those dreaded visits to family members you’ve probably met a few times but never knew how they’re related to you or what their names even are. You go, dragging your feet the whole journey. Sighing loudly in the car and looking dramatically out the window, imagining all the fun your friends are having in the sun while you’re on your way to bhua Bebo’s house.
But there’s one thing that puts you in the car. Other than the inevitable beating and scolding from your parents. The samosas.
And so you continue sighing, but you sit in the car. Your mismatched outfit is orchestrated. The flared jeans, t-shirt brandished with a sequined butterfly, cardigan that’s triple your age and a chunni that smells of the gurdwara to cover your head - it’s the outfit they want to see.
“She’s so modern yet respectful”
I was nothing but modern and everything but respectful.
And you sit in their living rooms, your hands in your lap, catching eyes as they stare at you and speak to your mum in Punjabi, assuming you don’t understand. It happens every time. They’re surprised every time.
They offer orange juice or coca cola and “no” you straighten back “I’ll have cha” and they turn to mother who says “yes, she drinks cha, she loves it”
They all laugh and your shoulders tighten in excitement. You’re going to get fresh samosas.
“Preeti, go make cha” they yell across the house and you hear the heavy footsteps of a teenager as they huff and puff their way to the kitchen. You give them sympathy telepathically, but they have a service to provide and that’s to introduce samosas to your mouth.
You look at the assorted nibbles on the table in front of you and politely decline them. Your stomach rumbles. Listening to them talk about people you don’t know, you stare at the muted TV in the background. They offer the remote, you decline. You can’t fucking hear anything anyway.
Then it happens, tea is handed out by the disgruntled teenager. Satsriakal, she says as she passes the glasses around on her little kitschy tray.
She leaves the room and comes back in with the largest plate of samosas piled onto them. She plonks it on the table and leaves. But you can’t be the first person to take one, so you stare at the steam leaving the parcels of spicy goodness, beside a plastic container of imli chutney.
You look over at your mother, she laughs to the group “have one!” They all laugh.
Yes haha, thank you.
Grabbing a plate with a tremble of excitement, you pick up two, grab the industrial size of unbranded ketchup, completely ignoring the chutney and squeeze a healthy amount next to the samosas.
And the first bite is the best. You can’t hear the gossip anymore, all you can hear is the sound of the samosa in your mouth. Your first bite is big, you want to make sure you don’t just get a corner of pastry, but a healthy amount of filing.
There’s nothing quite like aloo (potato) samosa. Despite being a newly smug vegetarian, I’ve always preferred aloo over all other filings. Although a good paneer samosa went down well, because paneer always goes down well. I’ve had meat samosas, which I’ve always just assumed was keema in a pastry and once some villainous aunty gave me a chicken samosa and I remember crying loudly in disappointment.
But an aloo samosa? Forget about it. It’s very difficult to get wrong and potatoes are the best food we have learnt how to consume in so many different ways.
Then as it goes, I began to ignore my love for samosas - they were connected too deeply to guests I didn’t know or liked. So they dropped out of my life, occasionally making a re-entry when I visited home.
The love is deep in me however, rekindled when I’m offered a samosa. The “yes” is still so quick to leave my lips, but I’m reminded of those visits to aunties houses all over again. At the age of 35, they would probably still ask my mother what I’m studying at university, and she would laugh nervously, darting her “why aren’t you married yet?” eyes at me.
Now I only get to taste them when I’m around my parents who happen to live in areas where good samosas are sold. I feel like they’re holding me hostage because even when I don’t want to visit them, I go for samosas. Occasionally when I meet my dad for drinks, he comes with a bag and I spend the entire time thinking about my first bite.
But, I’m not going to see my family any time soon, nor will I be travelling to Hounslow or Southall. I’m no longer in the vicinity of samosas and I crave them.
Making them hasn't become a reality. There’s a few reasons why. Firstly, I don’t have the utensils, such as a deep fat fryer, or a pan deep and wide enough to contain oil. And when you use that much oil, you can’t throw it away. I wouldn’t even know how you would dispose of oil. We used to have a particular karahi for that, which sat under the counter, next to the industrial bag of atta. I don’t have the liberty to keep a pan full of oil in our tiny kitchen, for the occasional fry of sweet sweet samosas. Or would I make them non stop? Would I finally become that samosa mother warned me about?
The second is my inability to get the ingredients that would recreate the recipe perfectly. I need to go to an Indian shop, but I would need to go with someone who has made samosas before because the “just use this and use this much” with absolutely no guidance on what “this much” is, is not ideal.
At the moment, none of that is doable, but I could recreate my own recipe. When the world resets, I might be emigrating somewhere these samosas don’t exist. Isolation has turned me into a planner. I plan for the future now. The top of the list? Make the perfect samosa. So I’m looking at recipes, remembering the taste and thinking about what I can buy from shops around me to make my own version.
Then one day, I can feed them to my children and I can promise them I will never make them go to an aunty’s house for a samosa.
The following list of samosas have been provided by Sharan Dhaliwal, Jonathan Nunn, Shekha Vyas and Feroz Gajia
Jay Sweets Mart
276 Staines Rd, Hounslow TW3 3LX
Chahal Sweet Centre
279 Staines Rd, Hounslow TW3 3LX
Casa de Goa
113 High St, Hounslow TW3 1QT
112 The Broadway, Southall, UB1 1QF
84 Western Road, Southall, UB2 5DZ
60 North Rd, Southall UB1 2JL
11 King St, Southall UB2 4DF
Gayatri Sweet Mart
467 Kingsbury Rd, London NW9 9DY
JB Sweet and Savoury
372 Romford Rd, Forest Gate, London E7 8BS
Falafel and Shawarma (not Indian but their sambusaks are suspiciously close to Goan samosas)
27 Camberwell Church St, Camberwell, London SE5 8TR
Sharan Dhaliwal is a writer and the editor of the magazine Burnt Roti https://www.burntroti.com/
The illustration was done by Reena Makwana https://reenamakwana.com/
Both have been paid for this newsletter.