A street food hero: How the samosa is a treat for all seasons
The fried snack rules India’s street food scene, but change is afoot to make this crunchy delight appeal to a new generation of customers
The pantheon of India’s lip-smacking street food scene is headed by the samosa. Whether it is being served in its three-dimensional spiced potato-filled avatars to prospective grooms in ‘bride-seeing’ functions in North India, or as a smaller, flatter and crisper triangular ‘patti’ (pastry strip) version with nonbu kanji during Ramzan in the South, the samosa’s universal appeal is undisputed.
The samosa travelled to India from central Asia and the Middle East in the 12th or 13th centuries via Arab traders.
In his account, the 14th Century traveller Ibn Batutta mentions samosas filled with nuts and minced meat being served before the third course of pulao at the court of Mohammad bin Tughlaq.
Samosa is also known as sambousek in Arab cuisine, while within India, it also goes by the names of shingara (in Odisha and West Bengal), lukhmi (in Hyderabad), and somasi (in Tamil Nadu).
Despite its foreign origins, the samosa today has assumed a quintessentially Indian identity.
Bringing order to the market
The ubiquity of street food that is prepared and served on the spot in India has also been its undoing: this sector has remained unorganised for far longer than the pre-packaged fried snacks industry. India exports frozen samosas to over 140 countries, according to trade market figures.
The Indian snack market is worth ₹42 lakh crore, and of this 65% is unorganised.
In recent years, food startups operating through cloud kitchens have tried to bring some order into the business of selling freshly fried samosas.
A cultural marker of everything Indian
- In February, former adult film star Mia Khalifa hit back at trolls by tweeting ‘I can be bought with samosas’, as she relished an Indian meal sent by her celebrity friends.
- The predominance of Indian-American lawmakers in the new US government headed by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is being referred to as the ‘Samosa Caucus’.
- Last year, artist Sofia Karim expressed solidarity for the Shaheen Bagh protests in Delhi with her art project titled ‘Samosa Packet Movement’ in the UK, featuring paper covers with political messages.
- In January, an Indian restaurant in Bath, UK, tried to launch its samosa into outer space with the help of helium balloons fitted with a camera and GPS tracker. The devices helped record the crash landing of the would-be space flight on a field in neighbouring France.
“In India, samosas are consumed more commonly than pizzas and burgers. Our research has shown that we eat around five crore every day. But a common problem with this snack, as with most street food in India, is the perception that its preparation is unhygienic, and because it is deep fried, it is unhealthy. This is where we are trying to bring in change,” says Amit Nanwani, who co-founded the startup Samosa Party with Diksha Pande in 2017.
With a centralised cloud kitchen that has automated at least 75% of the process of making samosas, the Bengaluru-based startup offers freshly fried orders in 12 locations across the city, and is planning to expand to Delhi NCR area this month.
Samosa Party founders Diksha Pande and Amit Nanwani. Photo: Special Arrangement/THE HINDU
“The samosa looks very easy to assemble, but it is actually an artisanal hand-crafted product, and much of its appeal is based on its visual appearance. A ‘good-looking’ samosa won’t have a single blister on its body. This can be found only in halwai shops or traditional kitchens because there’s a lot of skill involved in how it is fried, how the dough is kneaded and so on. We haven’t tampered with the soul, which is how it is folded, because we still do it by hand,” says Nanwani.
The desire to package traditional quick-serve snacks like samosas and chaat items like panipuri (golgappa), aloo tikki and the like for a new generation has seen the growth of companies that are working harder on food-grade packaging, and hygiene standards, especially during the pandemic.
“The food market had been evolving in India, even before the lockdown. Customers’ perception of what street food should be, has also changed. Where people would once queue up around the vendors to be served, in the pandemic-alert world, they have begun to dislike the idea of having others handle their food before they eat it,” says Nidhi Singh, who began the start-up Samosa Singh in Bengaluru with her husband Shikhar Veer Singh in 2016.
The extra costs incurred in terms of greater hygiene compliance cannot be shifted to the customer, she says, because there are far too many options to replace them.
“Unlike a few decades before, we can no longer expect to serve samosas dripping with oil in recycled paper packets. In fact, one of our earliest challenges was to figure out how to retain the crispness between the time it was fried and delivered to the customer,” says Nidhi.
Beginning with a 300-square feet kitchen, Samosa Singh today operates from a factory-type facility of 5,500 square feet that serves lakhs of samosas daily through its 30 outlets in Bengaluru and Hyderabad.
It is set to expand to Mumbai and Pune shortly, having recently raised funding of ₹19 crore.
Filling it up
Though the Punjabi aloo (potato) version remains the ‘hero’ for startups, there is a greater variety of fillings on offer these days.
Samosa Singh, for example serves masala corn, achari chicken, cheese chilli, Manchurian and Schezwan chicken options, while Samosa Party’s bestsellers include mutton keema, barbecue chicken, achari paneer and chocolate.
“We are soon launching a baked version for health-conscious customers who may not want to eat fried snacks,” says Nanwani.
The conscious shift towards a more hygienic standard operating procedure (SOP) is a welcome change in the Indian street food industry, but its indigenous culinary heritage should be respected, says Mumbai-based chef Ritesh Tulsian.
“Historically, street food wasn’t just supposed to be pocket-friendly, but also hygienic, tasty and nutritious. The essence of Indian street food is dying because everyone is trying to create a fusion cuisine out of it,” he says. “Processed cheese is being used now in Indian dishes to mimic the ‘umami’ of non-vegetarian food. They have become loaded with ketchup and mayonnaise to make up for the lack in taste profile.”
Aided by social media exposure, street food in India today is vastly different from what used to be a simple gastronomic experience a few decades ago.
“Portion sizes were smaller then, because chaat was a mid-day snack. But nowadays, they have become the meal. If we eat anything at any time of the day, we lose the purpose of street food,” says Tulsian.
Samosas are often eaten with other fried snacks, doused in piquant chutneys, as in this dish of ‘samosa chaat’. Photo: Special Arrangement/THE HINDU