Grandma’s Samosas

Of all the food available at my family gatherings (and believe me, there was always an abundance of it), the one delicious snack I have the fondest memories of, are samosas.  At five years old I never quite grasped the true value of these perfectly fried little triangles. I knew only as much as I could taste, and quite frankly I believed – and still do believe- that samosas taste like bite-sized gifts from God. In my somewhat biased opinion, they’re better than a chunk of chocolate, and even rival the timeless delight of ice cream.  But back to my original point…I am now becoming increasingly aware of the fact that samosas aren’t American treats, but rather they were born in place radically different than where I live now.  Samosas are actually a product of the distinctly flavorful culinary culture of Southeast Asia – thankfully, brought to America by grace of my grandmother.

{original photos from 1950’s Burma}

My mother was born in Rangoon, Burma in 1952, as a member of the Karen tribe. For fourteen years, she and her three older sisters lived the Burmese lifestyle – complete with cultural festivals, dozens of relatives, a house on stilts, and the occasional snake intruder.  They relished in the warm weather, the bounty of blossoming fruit trees, and the comfort of a tight-knit family.

In 1966, my mother- along with her three sisters, my grandmother, and grandfather- immigrated to the United States from Burma.  At the time, my grandfather, a prominent attorney, had been asked to work for the Burmese government.  Because he didn’t agree with the beliefs and behaviors of the militaristic regime, he refused to join the administration.  As a result of his defiance, and in an effort to escape the control of the government, he uprooted his family and headed for Los Angeles.

{amidst their first years in America}

At the age of 14, my mom had the courage and bravery to do something that I’m not confident I could even do at 21 years old.  They left everything that was familiar and comfortable – their home, their friends, their relatives – but did however, manage to preserve a culture that is so unique to Southeast Asia.  Though they were far from Burma, my grandmother continued to cook many of the same foods they grew up with – among them, samosas!

While so much changed, many things about my mother’s family stayed the same.  Their ability to create comfort in a new place, cook a mouthwateringly monstrous feast, gather around a table, and be thankful for life, never faltered.  Instead, their love and gratitude flourished in Los Angeles.

{my beautiful mother, Winsome}

Whenever I bring friends home, my mom welcomes them with open arms and always repeats the same phrase- “this is God’s house” – a saying that comes directly from my grandma.  In true Christian tradition, my mom and my grandma have never felt the need to restrict who comes in and out of their house.  In their eyes, their homes belong to God, and everyone is welcome. I’ve heard countless stories of my grandmother and her knack for embracing anyone and everyone.  She is the type of woman with an uncanny ability to make you feel instantly at ease – all the while, trying to fatten you up with more food than can possibly fit in your stomach.

{Grandma Maggie, always the head of the table}

For as long as I can remember, my grandmother’s house has been a place where your worries are checked at the door, and where you are sure to leave 5 pounds heavier than when you arrived.  As soon as anyone sets foot in her house, my grandmother asks one question, “are you hungry?” – sometimes replaced with, “did you eat?”.  Before you even get a “hello”, let alone a hug and kiss, it’s highly likely that a seat at the table has been cleared for you, as you’re simultaneously handed a plate full of goodies.  She is the quintessential Asian grandma – generous, loving, and heartwarming, with an unwavering desire to feed people.

{kickin’ it old school at Grandma’s house}

There’s something about my grandmother’s kitchen that just begs to be lived in.  Maybe it’s the hopelessly inviting aromas that seem to be constantly floating from the stove, or the omnipresent slices of fruit on the table, or maybe it’s the calming (and often hilarious) chatter that fills the room.  Whatever the reason may be, I can confidently say that much of my childhood was spent around that kitchen table.  Many memories of which, involve the making of samosas.

{girls, girls, girls}

Until the recent birth of my baby cousin Bodhi, my family was almost entirely comprised of women.  My grandfather passed away when I was in high school, and my own parents divorced when I was young.  My brave uncle was the lone male, putting up with the ploys of ten females – my grandma, my mom, my three aunts, my two cousins, my sister, and yours truly. This means, that the kitchen was always filled with girls – on holidays, there are as many as four generations of women crowded around the kitchen table whipping up a cooking frenzy.

{Grandma is absolutely the chief of all her grandkids}

And in the midst of this full-blown frenzy, you’ll be sure find a hint of organization when it comes to making samosas.  Armed with a stack of wonton squares, a giant bowl filled with stuffing, a small bowl of water, and our bares hands (maybe a spoon if we’re feeling classy), we’re ready to dig in.  I must say, that there’s something about this one squeaky, aged, wooden chair at the table that I’m desperately drawn to – nevermind all the complaints that it’s “too noisy”, whatever that means…Though I can’t exactly pinpoint it, I think that there’s something very homey about things that creak. It means they’ve been loved, lived in – that they’ve seen better days, but if they could talk, they’d say a whole lot more than I’ll ever know.  Anyways, that’s an entirely matter – back to the samosas!

After spending so much time, filling and sealing samosas, chatting my grandma, my mom, my sister, and my aunts and cousins, there’s nothing more fulfilling than watching the samosas fry almost instantly.  Okay, I take back that last thought.  The most satisfying part of it all has got be eating the samosas.  As odd as it may sound, this is when I tend to migrate from my perfectly squeaky old chair, down to my grandma’s living room floor. Maybe it’s an Asian thing, or maybe it’s because we like to be close to all the food, but my family and I love sit on the floor and eat on the coffee table. And if there isn’t some sort of holiday music playing in the background, there’s usually the murmur of the Food Channel playing on the television (or if you’re lucky, one of Grandma’s favorite Old Western movies will be on – hellloooooo John Wayne & Robert Redford!).

To this day, as much as I love munching on samosas (or more like stuffing my face with samosas), I love the cooking process just the same.  The ritual stuffing, folding, and pinching of wonton dough, seems to evoke some kind of nostalgia that transcends my memories of an American childhood.  As I repeatedly shape samosas- my bare hands getting stickier by the minute- I’m not only brought back to my grandmother’s house in LA, but I’m also brought back to a Burmese youth, that although I wasn’t present for, I feel as though I’m a part of.

{the main ingredients}

And now, I’m more than excited to be able to share such a special recipe with my friends here in San Francisco {Burma –> LA –> SF}. Although I did make samosas for a school project when I was 13, I still had to call my mom for the recipe.  And in true Asian style (our inherent inclination to mix anything and everything together without any real order), she gave me a list of ingredients – just the food, no measurements, no specific times. Her instructions were something to the effect of, “buy some peas and red potatoes, boil them, mix them, stuff and fold them, and fry them in oil”.  While this may seem somewhat vague or lacking, it was actually all I really needed. Almost as if by muscle memory, I knew exactly what to do and how to do it. And with a little help folding from my roommates, I ended up with over 50 samosas and my own directions that go something like this…

Ingredients:

  • 8 Red Potatoes
  • 1 Bag Frozen Peas
  • Dried Basil
  • Ground Tumeric
  • Oregano
  • Garlic Powder
  • Vegetable Oil

Directions:

  • Peel potatoes & boil until soft (test them by poking with a fork)
  • Let potatoes cool & cut potatoes into small cubes
  • Boil peas until they’re firm
  • Let peas cool
  • Mix the peas & potatoes together with all the spices – use as much or as little as you desire.
  • Place a small scoop of the mixture in the middle of one of the wonton squares.
  • Lightly wet all four edges of the wonton dough.
  • Fold one side over so that it forms a triangle.
  • With your fingers, lightly pinch the dough together so that it forms a closed pocket.
  • Once all samosas have been folded, place a damp paper towel over them until you are ready to fry them (to preserve the moisture).
  • Fill a medium-sized pot with as much vegetable oil as desired, and begin frying!

{the final product: fried goodness}

And there you have it, samosas courtesy of the most amazing grandmother a girl could ask for.  Now all that’s left to do is eat your heart out, and in the words of my grandma, “party like the happy people”!