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How Indians turned the samosa into a billion-dollar global snack

Johannesburg in 2003 was still very racially divided. Apartheid was over, but South African whites, blacks and Asians mostly stayed in their own spaces. Finding a restaurant with genuinely mixed clientele was rare. Except, I was told, for World of Samoosas.

This was a hole-in-the-wall eatery in Oriental Plaza, a building that was both a result and defiance of apartheid. In the 1960s a nearby mixed neighbourhood was declared white only and most of its inhabitants forced out. To (very inadequately) compensate local traders, of mostly South Asian origin, they were given a building into which to crowd their shops.

Despite the cramped conditions, Oriental Plaza quickly became one of the best locations in the city to buy fabric — and samoosas, as the snack is called in South Africa.

Sitting in World of Samoosas, you saw white people coming to buy bags of samoosas as ideal starters for a braai, the iconic South African barbecue. The shop gave a free bottle of chutney with every five dozen samoosas. Black ladies with big bags of shopping enjoyed a break as they sat down to freshly fried samoosas, which came in varieties like beef, prawn, spinach & cheese and cheese & salami. South African Indians ordered sweet coconut samosas as a treat.

Indians would not be surprised at how samosas bring people together. Despite all our divisions, samosas seem to be one thing we can agree on. In different forms and diverse fillings, they are made across India and have transcended associations with any particular community.

Samosa snack served with tomato ketchup and mint chutney

INTERNATIONALLY, SAMOSAS ARE AN ESTABLISHED BUSINESS. CANADA-BASED ALIYA’S  FOODS SOLD 100MM SAMOSAS ALONG WITH OTHER INDIAN SNACKS IN 2021. IN THE UK, SAMOSACO SAW ESTIMATED REVENUES OF OVER 700,000 POUNDS.

When Indian-American astronaut Sunita Williams went into space it seemed only natural to take samosas along. Last year an Indian restaurant in the UK tried to emulate this feat by trying to send samosas into space attached to helium balloons, but the stunt went awry and the payload is estimated to have crash landed in France.

Perhaps the most poignant tribute to samosas comes from Daman Singh’s harrowing book ‘Asylum: the Battle for Mental Healthcare in India’, where she writes about an Ahmedabad-based woman named Rajkumari who suffered from schizophrenia. After repeated attempts at rehabilitation failed, due to the hostility she faced from people outside, she returned to the hospital forever: “Upon being asked what she missed most, she jokingly replied, ‘Let me think… samosas. Yes, that’s about the only good thing there is outside.”

They are common enough for a politician like Lalu Prasad Yadav to use it as a slogan, in his slightly inaccurate “jab tak samosa mein rahega aloo, Bihar mein rahega Lalu,” but can also fuel a start-up business.

Samosa Singh, a Bengaluru based venture which aims for the “rebirth of the samosa,” raised $2.7 million in funding in 2020, while another start-up Samosa Party, also raised $2 million in its preliminary funding in 2021. In its financial submissions, Samosa Party estimated that 60 million samosas are sold and eaten in India every day, which means a market opportunity of around $3.65 billion.

Internationally, samosas are an established business. In 2021 Edmonton, Canada-based Aliya’s Foods was estimated to have annual revenues of $50 million, from selling over 100 million samosas, along with other Indian foods, to retailers in Canada and the USA, like Walmart and Trader Joe’s.

In the UK, SamosaCo, a small company based in Wales, was estimated earlier this year to have revenues of 700,000-750,000 pounds from sales of samosas in the UK and Europe. They are planning to open a second factory now, which hopes to start supplying samosas to the UAE. If yoga can be extolled as a great example of Indian soft power, it seems like samosas should be close behind.

And yet, as is well known now, samosas didn’t originate in India. They clearly link to the sambusaks of Central Asia, which seem to derive their name from a Persian term. One plausible theory is that they came to India in the era of the Delhi Sultanate with cooks from Central Asia, but this process could have happened in parallel in different places, and through different communities. Middle Eastern Jewish communities like the Baghdadis, for example, make them a lot, because they can usefully be made ahead of the Sabbath, when work, like cooking, is not allowed, and still taste good. Pearl
Sofaer’s memoir ‘Baghdad to Bombay,’ for example, recalls the cheese samosas that were a favourite of her family.

This, in a sense, seems to be one key to the samosa’s wide appeal — it easily adapts to fit the needs and habits of different communities. Their contained nature also adapts well for commercial purposes. They pack easily, with little danger of crumbs or leaking liquids, and are also easy to freeze, especially before being fried, which is how they are sold in supermarkets abroad. Quick service restaurants can keep frozen, or ready prepared samosas, and fry them on demand.

Samosas adapt in other ways too. They can be big, like the pyramidal Punjabi samosas, or medium sized like triangular patti samosas, or tiny like the bite-sized cocktail samosas that are irresistible finger food at parties. The fillings are, of course, the most adaptable part of all, ranging from every possible variation of vegetarian and non-vegetarian, to the sweet versions that Indian pastry chefs keep devising.

Even the eating can be varied, with samosas broken up into chaat, stuffed into buns for samosa pav or soaked, Burmese style, in a curry. This adaptability is what helped samosas establish such a strong foothold in India, and then move out from here, with the waves of the Indian diaspora, like the indentured workers who went to South Africa, the traders and railway workers who went to East Africa, and then the UK, and the more recent waves of H1B migrants to the US.

Indians have taken samosas global and the world’s palate will never be the same.

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