June 27, 2008


While searching for a subject for a Serious Article (i.e. something I’d get paid for, as opposed to this!), I wrote up a list of local foods that I enjoy. Now, I’m not going to tell you all the things that made it onto that list (suffice to say, it was long), but the first that entered my mind was: samoosas. And the second thought that entered my mind was: I haven’t eaten nearly enough samoosas to write about them with authority.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I really like samoosas. Northern Indians popularized it, but every Arabic-influenced cuisine around the world has some version of this pastry, with a million different pronunciations and spellings (Persia’s sambusak is Portugal’s chamuca is Kazakh’s samsa). It probably was introduced to South Africa in the seventeenth century by early Malay slaves, the ancestors of today’s Cape Malays, and locally, it takes the form of a three-cornered, plump triangle of thinnish pastry, filled with a curried or spiced filling, most commonly beef mince, or otherwise chicken, vegetable or potato. The pastry is called purr, which you can buy, frozen, in Eastern supermarkets. The samoosa is deep-fried, and I don’t care what your nutritionist says. And best of all, it is widely available at take-out joints, corner cafes and even fancy restaurants (who blaspheme by making it with brie cheese and kumquat gastrique, and charge R40 for two).

So while I enjoy samoosas as much as the next Capetonian, I didn’t feel sufficiently schooled in their subtleties to expound on their virtues. So in the name of authentic and truthful journalism, I got together a group of game friends to eat as wide a sample of samoosas as possible. And who naturally turned out to be the most stubborn, opinionated, greedy and wonderful group with which to tour around Cape Town.


Typical Capetonians, everyone involved has a strong opinion. “You cannot taste a samoosa from a single bite,” one friend firmly tells me when I attempt to ‘share’ a samoosa with my boyfriend, Big Spoon. “The filling in one corner might taste different from the filling in another. A samoosa is to be savoured whole. Unless you’re on a diet,” she concludes ruefully. Sir Moosa and Mr Masala both insist that their mothers make the best, but since I cannot afford the time or petrol to go to Mpumalanga, and Ramadan is a long way off, this isn’t helpful. Most of the men I talk to feel that beef mince samoosas are the ‘true’ samoosas. No one has anything good to say about soy mince as a filling.

At my timid remark that Kenilworth’s Oakhurst Farmstall does a mean butternut samoosa, I am howled down by the entire group. “That’s not a real samoosa,” Tipsy Tart patiently tells me, “It’s a White samoosa. It’s pap (soft). A Woolies samoosa, if you will.” Oh. And everyone agrees that Indian samoosas are a whole different snack. No, the general consensus is, if I am going to write about samoosas, they will have to be Cape Malay samoosas.

Our first stop is in the historic heart of Cape Malay culture, the Bo-Kaap. Squeezed between the busy business district of downtown Cape Town and the steep slopes of Signal Hill, the Bo-Kaap feels worlds away from its neighbouring skyscrapers. Small, brightly painted square houses and cobbled roads still mark the original settlement of Malay slaves. And while many of their descendants have been forced from their homes by the gentrification of this historic quarter, it still is home to a sizeable Muslim population, several spice stores, corner cafes and Biesmiellah’s Corner Restaurant and Takeaways.

Biesmiellah’s is a local institution, and the store is constantly visited by bubblegum-seeking schoolchildren, lunching office-workers and local housewives. The mince samoosas are fresh out the fryer, we are reassured, and we order six chicken and vegetable samoosas which are fried to order.

Eating a freshly fried samoosa is both a beautiful and torturous thing; the pastry is at its crispest, and the first bite unleashes a heavenly steam, redolent with chili, borrie (turmeric), meat and onion. But as experience will teach, it is unwise to put something in your mouth that was seconds earlier submerged in 170 degree oil, and so we pass several minutes tossing the piping hot samoosas from one singed hand to the other, hopping from foot to foot in impatience and yelping when we finally succumb to temptation and the samoosas.

The samoosas are, as expected from the location and clientele, quite traditional, relying on turmeric, chilli powder and onions for flavour. Sir Moosa declares the mince samoosa too pap, and the pastry too thick. Everyone agreed that the vegetable samoosas are the most disappointing; “McCain Specials” as Tipsy Tart puts it, with precut frozen vegetables as the base. And while the chicken wasn’t dry, all lacked depth of flavour.

Things looked up at Mariam’s Kitchen, however. Situated in the busy Pic-bell Parcade on Strand Street in the CBD, we missed the lunch rush but are sadly too late to sample the potato or vegetable samoosas. We settle for mince and chicken, and are pleasantly surprised. Although clearly not recently fried, these samoosas are still crisp, perhaps due to a longer frying (fried more brown than golden, but certainly not overcooked). Like Biesmiellah’s, the chicken samoosa is flavoured with green chilli, dhania, turmeric and onion, but the meat is shredded rather than minced, more moist and has a more subtle, deeper flavour. The mince is also similar to Biesmiellah’s, but again juicier and more savoury.

The food was good enough to distract everyone from the seriousness of the task at hand, into a discussion of the best drink to accompany samoosas. At that point, we’d all been assuaging out thirst (and taming the chili heat) with an assortment of fantas, appletisers, cokes and even a one-litre jug of orange Quali-Juice. However, consensus was split among cubana, tropika and Frulatti followers, although the relative merits of Fanta versus Fanta Grape merited a spirited argument among the test panel. I wisely kept out of it, and focused on the chicken salomie (curry rolled into a soft, griddle-blistered roti) I was sneakily stealing, one bite at a time, from Big Spoon.

Corner of Wale and Pentz Streets, Bo Kaap.
021 423 0850

Picbell Arcade
Strand Street, Cape Town


Blogger Arthur C said...

I can attest to the fact that Oakhurst do sell very nice food, however I lived directly above Oakhurst for the entire year of 2000 and because I was - at the time - newly wed to an Indian lady from Durban, I had never had the chutzpah to try an Oakhurst samoosa.

Wednesday, 29 October, 2008  

Post a Comment

<< Home