I love Chicago's many ethnic neighborhoods, where you can drive a half hour from your home and feel like you are in another country. That is how Sharon and I felt as we spent a pleasant afternoon on Devon Avenue, tasting samosas. We were often the only native English speakers at the places we visited.
So what is the difference between a samosa and an empanada? Many elements are the same – deep-fried dough encasing a filling of vegetables and/or meat, with spices, and often accompanied by a dipping sauce. Here are the differences we found:
- -The shape. Most empanadas are shaped like a half-moon, starting with acircle of dough, then filled, and finally folded in half. Samosa dough also starts as a circle, but then it is cut in half and each half is shaped into a cone, filled, then closed at the top. The result is a triangle shape.
- -The filling. Most empanadas focus on a meat filling, while samosas are most often vegetarian. Since samosas are the snack food of India and many Indians are vegetarian, this makes sense.
- -The flavorings/spices. Empanadas have Latin American spices like cumin,red pepper flakes, and jalapenos.Samosas have a complex mix of spices, like garam masala, mango powder, fennel powder, coriander powder, red chili powder, etc.
- -The dipping sauces. We found cilantro based dipping sauces for both samosas and empanadas. But a common samosa dipping sauce was date-based.
It's no wonder that there are many similarities between empanadas and samosas. It is widely believed that they come from the same origins. According to "Empanadas: The Hand Held Pies of South America", empanadas originated in Persia, as early as 250 BCE. The Spanish Empire adopted them, and as they conquered various regions of the new world, they brought empanadas with them. Similarly, as Middle East traders ventured to what is now northern India and Pakistan, they introduced their portable savory treats to this part of the world.
We visited four places on Devon Avenue, all within a couple of blocks of each other. If we had more time (and bigger stomachs), we could have sampled many more; there are a huge number of restaurants on Devon.
Kamdar Plaza, 2646 W. Devon. This is a grocery store with a snack and sweet counter. The samosas are vegetarian – filled with peas and potatoes, deep fried, and served with two sauces. One order is two samosas for $1.79, the least expensive samosas of the day. There is a small area of tables for eating-in. I liked their samosas but Sharon thought they were too spicy. When we asked the counter woman what the spices were, all she could say was that there were many, many of them, and that it was a special proprietary mix. The samosas were served with two dipping sauces – the green sauce was cilantro based and very spicy, and the red sauce was date-based and sweet. This is also the place I bought all of the ingredients I needed to make samosas at home.
Uru-Swati, 2639 W. Devon. This is a genuine sit-down restaurant. The décor is very modern and pleasing. I wished we could have ordered more food -- so many good sounding things. But we had to remain disciplined and stick to samosas. (O.K. I cheated a bit and ordered a mango lassi, yummy!) We ordered their "traditional" samosas, $3.25 for two. Again it was peas and potatoes, with spices. This was our favorite samosa of the day. It wasn't as spicy as Kamdar Plaza, but it was very flavorful. The crust was flaky, not greasy. Again, they were served with a green (spicy) and a red (sweet) dipping sauce.
Sabri Nihari, 2502 W. Devon. The farther east we walked, the nicer the décor of the restaurants became. This is a white tablecloth, sit-down restaurant. We ordered their beef samosas, for a change of pace from vegetarian fare. An order of 4 was $6.99.The filling was ground beef, onion, and cilantro. It was spicy but not too spicy. But the pastry seemed to be phyllo dough! I call shenanigans! We weren't there to have spanakopita (spinach and feta encased in phyllo and baked). So I am excluding these "samosas" based on lack of authenticity.
Hema's Kitchen, 2439 W. Devon. This is another sit-down restaurant, with a more traditional décor than Uru-Swati. The owner comes from Hyderabad, and according to the menu, her recipes are based on her upbringing there. We ordered the lamb samosas, 2 for $4.99. The filling was ground lamb, onions, green peas, and cilantro. We both found the samosas to be a bit dry. But the pastry was very nice, flaky, and had a very cute edge.
Making samosas at home.This took a bit of effort, but it was worth it. I think my home-made samosas tasted every bit as good as the ones we had on Devon. It was fun to find all the spices needed for the recipe below. (Thanks Kamdar Plaza!) And when we ate these samosas, it reminded us of India!It is amazing how smell can trigger memories. I was taken back to our trip several years ago to Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, and the Ganges.Good times!
Recipe for 12 samosas
8 oz. of maida or all-purpose flour
1 tsp. carom seeds (ajwain)
1 tsp. salt
4 Tbsp. oil
4 oz. water
- 1.Mix flour, carom seeds, salt in a bowl.
- 2.Create a well in the center and add the oil. Use your fingers to rub the flour and oil together, until all the oil is evenly distributed through the flour mixture. The mixture should resemble coarse breadcrumbs.
- 3.Add the water slowly and mix into the flour. Add enough water so that the dough can be formed into a ball.
- 4.Set aside for 30 minutes.
3 medium waxy potatoes (like Yukon Gold)
1 cup of green peas
¾ tsp. cumin seeds (jeera)
1 jalapeno pepper
½ inch of fresh ginger
1 tsp. garam masala
½ tsp. red chili powder
1 tsp. dry mango powder (amchur)
1 tsp. fennel powder (saunf)
1 tsp. coriander powder (dhania)
2 Tbsp. fresh cilantro
oil for cooking the filling
salt to taste
- 1.Peel and cook potatoes. Dice into small cubes.
- 2.Cook peas.
- 3.Mince the pepper and ginger.
- 4.Measure out the dry spices: garam masala, chili powder, mango powder, fennel powder, coriander powder.
- 5.Chop the cilantro.
- 6.Heat oil using a medium heat in a skillet.
- 7.Add cumin seeds and let sizzle for 30 seconds, then add the jalapeno pepper and ginger.
- 8.After a minute, add the dry spices.
- 9.After a minute, add the potatoes, peas.
- 10. Cook for several minutes, add salt to taste.
Preparing the samosas
- 1.Heat 3 inches of oil in a pot, to 350 degrees, for deep frying.
- 2.Divide the dough into 6 parts.
- 3.Form each piece of dough into a round ball, then roll out into a 6 inch circle.
- 4.Cut the circle in half.Wet the cut (straight) edge, fold the cut edge in half, and pinch to close. You should have something that looks like a cone.
- 5.Put filling in the cone, wet the top edges, fold and press them together.
- 6.Continue this process until you have 12 samosas.
- 7.Deep fry the samosas, several at a time. (Don't crowd the pot.) Cook until golden brown, a couple of minutes for each batch. Gently turn them over half way through the cooking process.