When we went to India, we had a whole list of foods to eat. Some because we had never had them before, others, because we couldn’t get them anywhere else. Naan, butter chicken, paneer in all varieties we could get, Gol gappa and, of course, samosas, the famous street food. Towards the end of the trip, we had eaten almost everything from that list, except for, the samosas. We had ordered samosas several times before, after seeing them on the menu. However, in every case they had run out of them or didn’t happen to sell them that day.
Luckily though, on one of our last days in India, we were rewarded for our waiting. When visiting the Palika bazaar in Delhi, there was a place, upstairs, that did sell samosas that day. Even better, they were probably the best we ever had! Especially that great crunchy crust on them was great.
Back from our trip we tried replicating this samosa. Even though we never really managed to make as good a quality samosa as that one, we did get close and learned a lot about samosas (& their science) along the way.
What is a samosa?
Defining what a samosa is, is surprisingly difficult. As soon as most of us see a samosa we’ll know it’s one, but there isn’t a nice and short definition for samosas!
Generally speaking, samosas refer to an Indian snack which is deep fried or baked. It has a pastry outside, made of wheat flour and has a spiced (not necessarily spicy) filling. A lot of different combinations are possible, but one of the more common ones is potato with peas. They can be round-ish, but triangular is probably most common. They can be thick or thin, be large enough to be a whole meal, or small enough to snack on.
Outside of India there exist a lot of similar, but slightly different dishes. They can vary based on their fillings, spices or shapes.
Two types of samosa doughs
Within that enormous realm of Indian style samosas there seem to be two main styles of samosa dough. You can either use filo pastry or a dough that is surprisingly similar to a short crust pastry. Making it with filo pastry, which is very thin, gives a very delicate but light crunchy outside. The latter gives a sturdier outside, but if baked and prepared well, is super crunchy with a good bite.
That delicious samosa we ate in Delhi, was made with the latter, so we’ll focus on that variety here. You will often find that this samosa type, filling with potato and peas, is also referred to as a Punjabi samosa. Whether it is really solely from Punjabi
When it comes to samosa science, there is some of it in each of the main steps of making a samosa:
- Making the dough
- Making the filling (and preparing the spices!)
- Frying the samosas
- Storing the samosas
Making samosa dough
The dough we’re discussing here is a dough that shows some similarities to that for a short crust pie pastry. You start this pastry by rubbing fat into the flour, a technique used for scones as well. You then add the water to knead it gently into a smooth dough. The resulting dough is pretty sturdy and easy to stretch and handle, which is ideal when filling samosas.
That rubbing in of the fat into the flour ensures that the fat is well distributed throughout the flour. It prevents big clumps of it. Simultaneously, those small pockets of fat also help the crust to flake ever so slightly. The fat melts in the oven, leaving a slight open pocket within the pastry. It is not as pronounced as it is for a puff pastry, but it is definitely there.
Making a samosa filling
Samosas aren’t just about the dough though. Samosas are great because of the combination of the crispy outside, which forms during frying, and the flavourful filling on the inside. There are a lot of different samosa fillings out there and really, you can make whatever you like. However, there are a few guidelines to stick to to make sure your samosa works out well.
First of all, the filling should be more solid than liquid. When making fillings you will fold the filling inside the dough. If it is very runny it will just come out again. It’s one of the reasons you will often find potatoes inside. The potatoes thicken the filling and hold on to extra moisture that might come from the other ingredients (thanks to the potato starch).
Also, the filling should be cooked or almost cooked when it goes in. Your samosas won’t be in the oil for long, so apart from heating up the filling, there won’t be enough time for fully cooking the center.
Spice it up!
A good Indian samosa has a ton of flavour in the filling and most of that flavour comes from the proper use of plenty of spices.In order for those spices (e.g. coriander, cumin, mustard seeds, cardamon) to come out best you want to develop their flavour before they go into the samosa. A good way to do this is to fry the spices in some oil.
By frying the spices you bring out the aroma’s that would otherwise be caught inside. Also, some spices take part in the Maillard reaction, resulting in the formation of a whole range of new aroma’s. Just lean over your pan while frying the spices, you will smell the difference quite easily.
Once the filling is wrapped inside the dough, the samosas are ready for frying. As with any other fried food, the main factor of importance is the temperature of the oil you fry in.
When frying samosas your main goal is to cook the crust and make it nice and crispy. You won’t have time to fully cook the center, frying just goes too fast for that. A good temperature for frying is 180C (350F). At this temperature your crust cooks up quite quickly whereas the heat has enough time to travel to the center of the samosa before the outside burns.
Storing samosas – A travel food
Like so many other foods in a variety of cuisines, samosas are a great ‘travel food’. The encasing around the filling protects it from spoilage and makes them easier to carry around. They are a great snack to take along if you wouldn’t have any fresh food for a while.
Whether you’re planning a trip, or just feel like some great food, have a go at these samosas.
- 250g flour
- 65g of ghee (=clarified butter) - slightly warmed up, but should still be somewhat firm
- 1 tsp caraway seeds
- 90ml of water (don't add it all at once, the amount you need will depend on your flour)
- 1/8 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/4 tsp cardamon seeds
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1/2 tsp cumin powder (you can also use whole cumin seeds)
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon powder
- approx. 350-450g potatoes
- 150g vegetables (e.g. green peas, green beans and corn; if using larger vegetables, be sure to cut them up in small pieces) - about 250 ml in volume
- 3 small green chilies, seeds removed
- 1 tsp diced ginger
- 1/4 tsp chili powder (or to taste)
- pinch of salt
- 1 tsp dried mango powder (amchur)
- oil for frying
Samosa filling - prep
- Peel your potatoes and cut them into smaller pieces. Bring them to the boil and cook until cooked through and soft.
- Defrost the vegetables or cook the vegetables until just tender (they will cook just a little more while frying the samosas).
- Drain the potatoes and vegetables and leave to cool down while you make the pastry.
- Mix the ghee with the flour and rub the butter in until it looks like bread crumbs. The mixture isn't as fine anymore, but has slightly larger pieces throughout. (similar to what you do when making short crust pastry)
- Mix in the caraway seeds.
- Add about half of the water and knead it through. Add the remainder of the water. The dough should come together and you should be able to shape it in a ball. However, the dough should remain quite firm, if not, it will not hold on to the fillings properly. If it remains too dry, add a bit more water. If it becomes too sticky, add more flour.
- Leave the pastry to rest for at least 30 minutes to relax the gluten while you finish the fillings.
- Roast the whole spices of the spice mix in a dry pan (no oil!) until they start getting fragrant. Add the spice powder and heat until everything is fragrant. The ground spices are prone to burning so they will only need a short roasting time.
- Pour the seeds in a small grinder or mortar & pestle. Grind the spices up, since they're hot it's pretty easy to do this by hand, they break down easily.
- Add the chopped ginger, chilies, chili powder, salt and grind together again.
- Heat a wok (or other pan you like to use) and add about 1 tbsp of oil. Add the spice mixture and fry until fragrant and until the ginger and chili smell cooked.
- Mash down the potatoes, they don't have to be super smooth, they can be clumpy so just do this with a fork.
- Add the potatoes to the spice mixture and fry together.
- Add the vegetables and mango powder and mix it all up until it smells nice and fragrant.
Making the samosas
- Take the samosa pastry and knead it one more time.
- Split the pastry in equal 6 portions.
- Roll a portion into a smooth ball and use a dough roller to roll it flat. You want the dough to be thick enough so it won't break when filling and thin enough so it's nice and flexible. It might take a bit of trial and error to get just right.
- Cut the circle of dough in the middle so you're left with half a circle.
- Wet your fingertip and wet half of the straight side of the dough. Now form the dough into a cone by bringing together the halves of the two straight edges. Close tightly with your fingers, your fingers shouldn't be too wet at this point or you'll break the dough. It should be well closed to ensure it doesn't burn during frying.
- Hold the cone in your hand and fill with a generous scoop of mixture. Try to keep the filling about 0,5 cm below the edges.
- Wet a fingertip again and bring together the top to create another straight seam. Again, close off tightly.
Frying the samosas
- As soon as you've got enough samosas to fill your wok or frying pan, start frying them while you continue to make more. Heat the oil to 200C (a piece of dough should brown quite quickly at this temperature). Once it's there, add the samosas and turn down the heat. Try to keep the heat between 180-190C (if you've got a deep fryer, just put it at 180C all the time, you shouldn't have too much issues with it cooling down while you fry).
- Bake them for 10-12 minutes, turning them a few times to ensure even baking. The samosas should turn a nice brown and super crispy.