A white (faranje) adoptive mother to two Ethiopian (habesha) girls wends her way through
Exotic Ethiopian Cooking by D. J. Mesfin

Friday, March 12, 2010

Sambossa Pastry

"Sambossa is a delicious appetizer.  Crisp and tasty."  ~ D. J. Mesfin, Exotic Ethiopian Cooking, p. 38

In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, it's a samsa.  In Turkey, it's a somsa.  In Arabic, it's a sambusak.  It's found all around the world, spanning continents, cultures, and cuisines.  

In Ethiopia, it's a sambossa and, according to Wikipedia.org, whatever it's called, it "generally consists of a fried or baked triangular, semilunar, or tetrahedral patty shell with a savory filling which may include spiced potatoes, onion, peas, coriander, and lentils".  Indeed, we had some lentil sambossas at our local Ethiopian restaurant a few weeks back, though tonight's preparation would use meat.  

Though the pastry preparation is mentioned first, I decided to start with the filling instead, as I had noticed that it had to cook for a little.  I figured I'd start the filling, then prepare the dough while the meat mixture cooked down.  

First came the chopping of the hallmark red onions:

And the chopping of some coriander (cilantro) and mint:

I dumped the onion, cilantro, and mint into a saucepan and added the rest of the ingredients:

~   ground ginger, turmeric, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, and cinnamon (and some salt added separately)

~   and the meat  

The recipe calls for either ground lamb or ground beef.  I don't particularly care for lamb, so I chose beef, but, as noted above, you can also use lentils or any other cooked vegetables if you need a vegetarian option.  

Also added were a couple of cups of water.  

I brought the mixture to a boil and then turned down the heat and let it simmer; the recipe instructs that it's to be simmered until all of the liquid evaporates.  

     simmering away

While the filling was simmering (and I can't even begin to tell you how amazing it smelled), I busied myself with the pastry dough, which was also quite simple.  

~  flour and salt

~  and margarine

I then mixed it with the KitchenAid until it "resembled cornmeal in texture".  

Then I took egg, vinegar, and cold water:

Mixed them together, added the mixture to the "cornmeal" mixture, and ran the KitchenAid some more:

The dough that resulted was much too dry to hold itself together enough for me to be able to roll it out at all, so I called on my meager history with pie crust and added water -- first by the teaspoonful, then by the half-tablespoonful -- until it started pulling together and looking like a pastry dough.

At this point, the dough was ready to be rolled out:

The instructions made it sound like I needed to cut out a circle of dough freehand, but I decided to take the easy way out.  First, however, I needed to raid The Ethiopians' Play-Doh supplies, which happen to double as our cookie cutters (or maybe it's the other way around).  

    don't worry, I washed it first!

After cutting a circle, I was instructed to cut the circle in half to form two semicircles:

Then, it was just a matter of adding the filling, which had cooked down to look like this

and somehow ending up with something that's supposed to look like this.  No problem, right?  

Well, there was a little bit of a learning curve here.  I had it in my mind that these were not too dissimilar from ravioli, and I wasn't wrong about that, but the problem was that I had never actually made ravioli.  All I had was a vast store of knowledge gleaned from watching an embarrassing number of hours of PBS cooking shows: Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Ciao Italia, Lidia's Kitchen, Graham Kerr, even Yan Can Cook (crab rangoons aren't all that different from sambossas). 

What I seemed to remember was that one edge of the dough of the sambossa (or ravioli or dumpling or wonton or what have you) needed to be damp in order to stick to the opposite edge and that under no circumstance should the filling be allowed to come close to the edge, or else all would be irrevocably lost.  That was pretty much the extent of my theoretical knowledge; the rest of the process would consist of trial and error.

The half circles were way too small, and were a little thick, so I rolled them out a bit more and was pleasantly surprised to see them assume the more triangular shape that I recognized from our restaurant's sambossas.  

The instructions say to dip one's finger in water, moisten the straight edge, and shape each semicircle into a cone, but I decided to do it my way, as I've seen similar instructions for cookies and it's always been a little challenging to get the filling into the cone. 

The book says to use between 1-1/2 to 2 teaspoons of filling.  That's 2 teaspoons shown above.  It was too much filling and the dough wasn't rolled out large enough.  Thus started a small series of fails.  Look away if you're squeamish.

The top picture shows the perils of too much filling and a piece of dough that is too small. Not too bad, though.  The middle picture shows what happens when you roll out the dough too far in advance of adding the filling (I was trying to figure out the most efficient way of production.  The answer?  There isn't one.  Work with small pieces of dough at a time, enough to make two sambossas; otherwise, the dough dries out too much.)  Still not bad.  

The bottom picture?  Let's just say that They were all right about never letting the filling touch the edges.  *shudder*  I share with you my shame so that you don't head down the same path.  I'll spare you the other fail pictures; these three were pretty representative. 

So I decreased the amount of filling to 1-1/2 teaspoons, rolled out my dough a bit more (and in smaller amounts), and soon found my groove:

     those surface imperfections are nothing, seriously

     a small amount of filling

     dampen the bottom edge of the dough and bring down the top corner

     crimp the edges around the "flap" of the "envelope to help contain the filling 

     dampen the little triangle on the right and fold it up

     then repeat on the left

     soon I was really rolling!

My sambossas were smaller and thicker than those shown in the link above, but I was fine with that. 

With the filled sambossas piling up (literally), I started heating the vegetable oil.  A whole bottle of it:

Unlike with the dabbo qolo, there was no drama with the deep-frying.  A large slotted spoon worked perfectly well in transferring the sambossas into the oil.  I received no injuries and I believe the mess was even minimal!

I cooked until they were nice and brown, and then took them out to drain on some paper towels:

A sambossa in detail:

I was trying to show the flaky layers of the pastry here 

Some of the sambossas opened up a bit during the frying process (and you could tell when it happened because the sizzling of the oil suddenly intensified), but they still held up just fine. 

They turned out great!  I am not a pastry chef at all, so I was pleasantly surprised that they turned out as flaky as they did.  I was a bit worried about the cayenne, especially after I tasted the filling after it had cooked and found it unpleasantly biting, but the pastry offset the cayenne quite a bit.  Even The Ethiopians could tolerate it and they aren't fond of cayenne.  

The sambossas in the restaurant were served with a dipping sauce and the recipe mentioned serving them "with or without" chutney (it also mentioned that they could be served hot or cold).  Since we didn't happen to have any chutney on hand, we chose the "without" option, though I'm wondering how long it's going to take my husband to remember he has a gallon of this stuff in the pantry for the leftovers.  


  1. these look wonderful - love your descriptions of the trial and error- I've definitely gone through similar experiences with ravioli and stuffed cabbage leaves, etc.

    Good work! Can't wait to try this.

  2. Hey, I just tried one of these for the first time in a restaurant a couple of weeks ago too! I had never even heard of them, but the one I tried was great - I think it had a lentil filling.

    I was thinking I could try this until you got to the part about making your own dough...any thoughts on an acceptable substitute for making your own?

  3. Liz, I think there'd be several options. Pillsbury makes a premade pie crust that you can find in the refrigerated section; just unroll and cut. Phyllo dough would also be good (I believe the sambossas in the picture I linked to above were made with phyllo dough). Perhaps you could even use refrigerated crescent roll dough! With the crescent dough, I bet you could even bake them and get adequate results. If you try it, let me know how it works!!

  4. Fry ANYTHING and I am IN! These fluffy, meaty pastries look delicious and I can definitely see how versitile the recipe could be -- so many filling options... Can't wait to try it!
    Thanks! Meg B-Chicago by-dirigible.blogspot.com