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On the Dumpling Trail: Uzbek Samsa
And a recipe
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Thank you to everyone who read and shared last week’s dispatch. I received lovely, touching, and affirming feedback on it. It’s all very much appreciated. Today’s dispatch has me back in the kitchen, looking into a bit of food history, as part of the Dumpling Trail, this time in Uzbekistan for beef samsas. I’ve also provided the recipe.
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On the Dumpling Trail: Uzbek Samsa
My next restaurant review goes live in a few days and this one had me nibble something I haven’t had in years: beef samosas. Don’t get me wrong: samosas – crunchy, bubbly, golden, bulging pyramids filled with potatoes and peas – are a grab-and-go lunch. But the review’s phyllo-wrapped parcels filled with minced beef and onion and aromatic with nutmeg and mace had me thinking of Middle Eastern sambouseks and Central Asian samsas.
Of course they did. Samosas, sambouseks and samsas (along samboussas, somsas somoesas, and many others) are culinary cousins, with a lineage dating back a couple thousand years. Over those centuries, they travelled with merchants, military men, and migrants, adapting to campfires and kitchens from Morocco to Indonesia, from Central Asia to South Africa, and adopting their Middle Persian name, sanbosag (“triangular pastry”) to local vocal inflections.
While samosas are usually thought of as Indian snacks, they likely arrived with the Delhi Sultanate’s royal chefs. The spiced meat dumplings are a continuance of a culinary tradition that likely started in Central Asia more than a thousand years earlier, often linked to Uzbekistan’s samsa.
On the Silk Road
Central Asia is a vast land with a long history marked by waves of conquerors and empires. Nomadic Iranian tribes moved to what’s now Uzbekistan sometime during the first millennia BCE, with some settling into an agrarian lifestyle. While we don’t know when the city of Samarkand was established, by the 7th Century BCE, it was a key stop on the Silk Road, prospering as one of Central Asia’s largest cities.
As caravans passed through its gates, warring tribes fought for territorial control, from the Persian Empire in the first millennium BCE to the Russian Empire and the subsequent Soviet Union that ended last century. Alexander the Great’s conquest of Maracanda (now known as Samarkand) in 329 BCE brought a period of stability. Merchants, intellectuals, and creatives converged in the city (and the other nearby market cities of Bukhara and Khiva), turning it into “a crucible of cultures and religions.” Migrants and caravans arrived with foods from hundreds and thousands of kilometres away. As with other trading communities from Antioch to X’ian, they created a distinct food culture that melded these influences. Local food products found their places with roasted meats and tandoor-baked breads from the Middle East and Central and Western Asia, spices from India, and noodles and dumplings from Eastern Asia.
Triangular meat pies to go
When, where, and how samsas first appeared isn’t known. Breads and pastries have been made for thousands of years – Homer’s Odyssey mentions (thin) breads sweetened with walnuts and honey, wheat grown at Mohenjo-Daro and Indus Valley settlements suggests bread or chapati-making, and leavened breads were made in the middle east for at least 14 000 years – so it’s possible that various cultures along the way created stuffed breads, which then travelled along with their makers and eaters.
I’ve read articles that hint that samsas were made during the Persian Empire or they arrived when Timur expelled the Mongols. We do know that Persian poet Ishaq al-Mawsili wrote “a praise of” samosa (or one of its Middle Eastern cousins) and recipes were recorded in Arab cookbooks dating from the 10th to 13th Centuries.
Regardless of when these dumplings first appeared, they became popular street foods along the Central Asian portion of the Silk Road. They’re triangular shape is similar to other stuffed pastries, but is said to be inspired by Central Asian pyramids (I’m presuming like the Buddhist temple at Vrang) While versions could be made over campfires, once tandyr (tandoor) technology arrived, those blistering hot urn-shaped ovens bake these hand pies. Merchants ate them in the markets, around campfires, and packed them for the next legs of their journey. From there, these dumplings spread across continents.
Samsas in my kitchen
Uzbek cuisine is known for being rich, meaty, and hearty. Staple ingredients include meat and meat fat, rice, flour, vegetables and oil, and dishes are flavoured with cumin, pepper, coriander, cinnamon and bay leaves. While plov is the national dish, samsas remain popular as snacks, street food, or small lunches.
Traditional filling has equal weights of chopped lamb and onion, flavoured with cumin and an additional bit of tail fat. Today, samsas can be filled with beef, pumpkin, potatoes, spinach, mushrooms, or something sweet. They’re often folded into triangles but can be made into any shape before being topped with nigella or poppy seeds.
Traditionally, samsas are made with unleavened dough – just flour, water, and salt – that’s rolled thinly and brushed with lamb fat, ghee, or oil to create layers. Descriptions of ones from street stalls include words like “sturdy” and “chewy” – which makes sense as they originally needed to hold heavy fillings for travel. From the recipes I’ve seen, it seems like a stronger strudel dough. Some modern recipes include baking powder or yeast or use puff pastry to get a bit of lift to the layers.
As someone who’s not a natural pastry maker, I made things difficult for myself and made the pastry. The dough took a couple of goes to get right. While most recipes I read used the Swiss roll method to develop the layers, I found buttering, folding, and chilling the dough produced the sheet-like flakes I was looking for.
New from me:
What I’m reading:
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Foodish things I’m doing:
Plugging away at the foodways project, still in the rabbit hole stage…which is a good stage to be in.
Uzbek Beef Samsa
You can make these with ground or finely chopped lamb—but be sure to have at least 20% fat (30% would be better). If you don’t want to make your own pastry, use a 500g packet of puff pastry, and roll it to about a 2 mm thickness. While these make a good lunch with a side of sautéed vegetables, serving them with a sharp dipping sauce – like a tamarind chutney or (as pictured) sour cream swirled with chilli crisp – is a good midnight snack.
Preparation time: about 2 to 2½ hours (including resting time – but you can rest the pastry longer than I did)
Cooking time: 30-40 minutes
Yield: 10 - 16 pieces, depending on size
For the pastry
225 ml hand-hot water, plus more if needed
1 teaspoon yoghurt or sour cream or vinegar
300 g (500 ml) all purpose flour, plus more, if needed
½ teaspoon salt
55 g (60 ml) butter or ghee, brushably soft or melted (and cooled), plus more if needed
1 egg, well beaten
Optional: black sesame seeds, white sesame seeds, or nigella seeds (aka black onion seeds)
For the filling
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
500 g (approximately 1 lb) regular ground beef (coarse ground, ideally)
3 medium onions, minced (approximately 450 g)
1 tablespoon butter, grated
1 garlic clove, minced (1 teaspoon)
Start with the dough by mixing water and yoghurt together. Mix four with salt and add water. If you’re doing this with a mixer, knead on medium for about 7 minutes; longer if you’re doing this by hand. You want a moist dough that’s not too sticky. Rest in buttered bowl for 20 minutes. Flour your bench and knead lightly. Divide into halves. Roll one piece to rectangle approximately 30 cm by 24 cm. Let rest on the side as you roll out the second half to the same dimensions.
Brush the surface of the just-rolled rectangle with butter and then press the rested rectangle on top and press so they join. Pinch the edges to seal. Butter two-thirds of the surface. Fold the unbuttered third over the middle, and then fold the remaining buttered third over the top of the unbuttered third. Pinch the edges to seal and lightly roll to press together. Again, brush two-thirds of the surface and repeat the folding process. Pinch the ends, place in a covered dish and place in the fridge for 30 minutes (up to overnight, if you wish).
While the dough rests, make the filling by dry toast the cumin and coriander seeds. Remove and let cool before grinding them with peppercorn and salt into a fine powder. Divide the filling into 16 portions (approximately 2 to 2½ tablespoons each).
Use your hands to mix ground beef, onions, butter, and garlic. Add the ground spices and continue mixing until everything is well distributed. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 190C/375F. Line baking trays with parchment.
After the dough has rested, return the block to a lightly-floured surface and cut in half. Working one piece at a time, roll to a 1 or 2mm -thick rectangle (approximately 35 cm by 30 cm). You may need to pick it up and stretch it with your knuckles or fists as if you were making pizza, strudel, or phyllo. Ideally, it should be translucent so you can read a magazine or recipe card under the dough. Brush well with butter, then roll along the long edge, as if you were making a Swiss roll cake. Return the coils (covered) to the fridge for 20 minutes (longer, if you wish). Afterwards, cut each roll into eight pieces (16 pieces in total).
Set each piece, like a column, on a lightly floured bench. Smash down with the palm of your hand, so you see the swirl on top. Roll each piece into a 10 cm circle. Lightly wet the edge of the round with your finger. Place one portion of filling in the centre of the round.
Fold the bottom third of the round over the meat, then fold the next third over the meat and press where dough meets dough. You should now have something that looks a little like an ice cream cone. Press the final third of dough over the centre. Seal all edges so the juices don’t escape while baking. Place the triangle, seam side down on a prepared baking tray. Continue with the remaining rounds.
Alternative: Brush the rectangle well with butter, then cut the sheet into strips that are about 7 cm wide Place one portion of filling in a vaguely right-angle triangular shape a couple of centimetres from the bottom edge. Fold the bottom over the filling, then flip the parcel to form the triangle. Press lightly. Continue folding, pressing, and flipping upward until end of the strip is reached. Place on prepared baking sheet. (I find this easier than the Swiss roll method, but the samsas will be larger, fewer, and you may have leftover filling).
Brush tops with egg wash and sprinkle with seeds (if using). Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until golden.