Searching for the best Indian snacks
By Shoba Narayan
Published: June 6 2009 02:22 | Last updated: June 6 2009 02:22
For your last meal on earth, what dish would you pick? Caviar, foie gras, fish and chips, pasta … I’ve heard it all. Faced with such a difficult choice, my answer is unequivocal: the humble samosa.
Samosas, for those who don’t know, are a much-loved Indian snack. Triangular and deep-fried, the parcels usually have a savoury filling. But this bald description does them no justice.
Samosas are sublime, though among its many fans opinions vary enormously about what constitutes a good one. Singaporeans love “Chinese” samosas with their chow mein fillings, whereas I detest them. Every samosa should contain potatoes. There are cauliflower (gobi) samosas but I hate those too. As for the shredded beetroot and cabbage samosas that haute Indian restaurants serve as if they were spring rolls, I feel like marching towards the chef and demanding my money back. At Zaika in London, I almost spat out a “chocolate samosa”, to my mind an oxymoron.
My Bengali friends swear by the shingara, which I grudgingly admit to the samosa family, except for the raisins in the recipe. If the shingara could lose its sweetness, its delicate filling of diced potatoes and cauliflower – not mashed together but left as a medley – could give any samosa a run for its money.
Samosas, which probably came to India from Arabia, are not a health food. They ought to be deep-fried, if possible in ghee. And don’t even think of substituting potatoes with sweet potatoes like one Australian restaurant once did. A good samosa ought to contain a few ingredients (mostly potatoes) with restrained spices – cumin, salt, and maybe a dash of fresh ginger – all encased in a thin shell of dough. No fancy puff pastry; no fudging with carrots or celery; and, above all, no messing with the shape.
In my opinion, the best samosas outside India can be found in the UK and in Toronto. In Britain, I routinely pick up samosas from food halls – I prefer Marks and Spencer’s version. My brother lived in west London, for many years and every time I visited him, we would scour the East End, Southall and Tooting in the south for samosas, sometimes with chilled beer and sometimes without. Our Pakistani friends swore by Lahore Karahi’s meat samosas. I prefer Pooja Sweets and Savouries on Upper Tooting Road. Their rustic samosas have enough heft and girth and don’t ooze oil.
Toronto is a mixed bag. On one hand, there is the very good Samosa King On the other, there is Sultan of Samosas, which serves a version filled with “fresh-cut spinach with feta and mozzarella in an oregano and basil dressing.” Just reading the description put me off samosas during my trip to Canada.
Even though I lived in the New York area for nearly 20 years, for good samosas, the West Coast is better. I usually start at Vik’s Chaat Corner in Berkeley, which serves decent samosas in an atmosphere that conjures up India. At a place that’s a cross between a high-ceilinged warehouse and a hole-in-the-wall, you wait in line before coming away with a plate of hot Indian food.
After trawling the globe, I have come up with a tip that I am rather proud of. If you want to get a halfway decent samosa anywhere in the world, don’t go to any place that calls itself an Indian “restaurant”. Choose instead the ones that say “sweets”. If the sign says, “Sweets and … ” even better. It’s no coincidence, then, that the two places where I’ve attained samosa nirvana are called Pooja Sweets and Savouries in Tooting and Rajjot Sweets and Snacks in Sunnyvale, near San Jose, California.
Shoba Narayan is the author of ‘Monsoon Diary: Reveries and Recipes from South India’
Where to go
1 Tooting High Street, London, tel: +44 (0)208767 2477
Pooja Sweets and Savouries
168170 Upper Tooting Road, London, tel: +44 (0)208672 4523; www.poojasweets.com
5210 Finch Avenue East, Scarborough, Toronto, tel: +1 (416) 332 0944
Sultan of Samosas
251 Bartley Drive, Unit 1, Toronto, tel: +1 416 285 6565
Vik’s Chaat Corner
726 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA, tel: +1 510 644 4432; www.vikschaatcorner.com
Rajjot Sweets and Snacks
1234 South Wolfe Road, Sunnyvale, CA, tel: +1 408 730 5510