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Sunday, 21 April 2013

Suvir Saran's samosa recipe

It's amazing who you can meet on facebook. I recently met... (deep breath)...:
"Top Chef Master, Suvir Saran, the author of three widely acclaimed cookbooks; Masala Farm: Stories and Recipes from an Uncommon Life in the Country (2012), American Masala: 125 New Classics From My Home Kitchen (2007) and Indian Home Cooking (2004). Saran established new standards for Indian food in America when he teamed up with tandoor master Hemant Mathur in 2004 to create the authentic flavors of Indian home cooking at the 75-seat restaurant Dévi in Manhattan, which received a one-star rating in the Michelin Guide New York City two years in a row."
Suvir's heritage and identity dominate his cooking style. They form the basis of how he approaches food. I could relate to his insistence to remain true to the Indian food he grew up with, as I have my similarly strong feelings about the main culinary influences in my life. I have been following Suvir's culinary expertise though his online photo albums, since I've always liked to cook Asian cooking in my home.

He recently posted a series of samosa photos, and I expressed an interest in making them, as I hadn't made samosa for more than two years now. The photos reminded me of the truly creative vegetarian (and often practically vegan) international cuisine that I miss. The way I cook at home would be even more monocultural if my family hadn't travelled to more international places. I told Suvir that I had decided to make samosa that evening. He was happy to hear this and asked me if I make my own pastry, which of course, I do, which he was pleased about. I nearly always have my home-made filo pastry dough sitting in the fridge, to be used for various purposes throughout the week. It's very versatile.


On his own initiative, Suvir sent me his recipe for a samosa filling, which comes from his latest book, Masala World:

2 lbs/910 g (about 6) red potatoes
1/2 cup/8 g finely chopped fresh cilantro/fresh coriander leaves
3 tbsp neutral-flavored oil (like canola or grapeseed)
2 dried red chiles, coarsely ground in a mortar and pestle
1 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tsp cumin seeds
1/8 tsp asafetida
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp ground amchur (green mango powder)
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
3/4 cup/100 g frozen peas


This recipe contains ingredients that I cannot easily get here. Red potatoes for a start: in Hania, a potato is a potato. It's always earth brown on the outside and creamy-white on the inside. We do not have red potatoes on the market. I have seen them in London (where I also learnt what plaintains and yams were), and really wanted to try them; but potatoes in my suitcase... oh well, maybe next time. Cilantro is not popular in Crete, although some organic shops are now selling it, and the chef at my workplace also uses it in salads, which is how I have become accustomed to its taste. But the night I was making samosa, it was out of my reach. I once grew it and no one appreciated its taste in our food... It's an acquired one, I guess; parsley will have to do instead. Canola oil and grapeseed oil do not figure in my household for obvious reasons: we grow olives, we produce olive oil, it's all extra virgin. Other oils could add another dimension to my food, but right now, I have EVOO by the barrel-full in our basement. It will have to do.


The good news is that fresh chili peppers are now becoming almost as widely available as fresh ginger, which is now a standard supermarket product. I place both in the freezer to ensure I don't run out. Chilis can be sliced and ginger grated straight from their frozen state. But certain spices, like green mango powder and asafetida, are simply not available in our little corner of the world. Through my interest in Indian cuisine, I knew that mango powder is sour and could be replaced by lemon, while asafetida gives a taste similar to onions.

I told Suvir that I will use onion in the filling instead of asafetida; on learning this, he warned me to use only a tiny bit of onion, and very very very finely minced at that.  Suvir believes that onions don't work everywhere, and in some recipes, they should only provide a hint of flavour that does not overpower the eater. In some cases - and particularly samosa, as he explained - the eater should not even taste the onion in the dish, which is why he suggested that the onion is very finely minced. On the other hand, I use onions and garlic in most of my dishes. We go through about 50kg of onions a year in our household.

This reminds me of a very funny story. The only other good cook who I know that does not like to use onion except in very small amounts is my mother-in-law. I had once bought some onions, which she noticed were all rather on the big side. She asked me what I would do if I needed only a small onion in a recipe; I told her that there would never be a time that I would need only a small amount onion! Then she asked me what I would do if the recipe required just half an onion; I said that the recipe was probably written incorrectly! Twelve years later, I have met my match!

Shaping samosa requires technique. I knew I could not master that in one evening, straight after work! Mine look quite flat compared to the samosa that I saw in Suvir's photo sets. It seemed that I had cut the pastry a little too small. While they are not perfectly shaped, I know that they were very tasty because they were made from scratch and I took great care to follow Suvir's recipe as closely as possible.



Cooking takes time and practice. It is not something everyone enjoys doing, but everyone has to eat. What we eat is not always an independent choice; sometimes we have to make do with what we've got. We've come to a point where the Western world thinks it can eat what it likes when it likes, but we also know how much we have been fooled by agribusiness, so that we are not necessarily eating what we think we are eating. Maybe the world has evolved to such an extent that we might have gone the full circle, and are now turning back to our past for more answers. All I know is that right now, if I want to eat samosa, I have to make it myself. And if I couldn't cook, then I'd have no samosa.

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