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A Calzone is really a medieval samosa

Sometimes food disappears. Tastes change. People move on. And snacks and dishes fall from favour.

In Mumbai, in the 1970s, the most popular kind of popcorn was masala popcorn, flavoured with so much masala that it stained your hands.


But within a decade or two, movie halls had stopped selling it. Instead, we got imported popcorn machines and American-style hot buttered popcorn.


   New popcorn variations keep being created. When my son was in his teens, he distressed his father by drizzling truffle oil on popcorn and calling it Truffle Popcorn. (As if!) It’s all very fancy but I will take masala popcorn—now so hard to find—over all the more upmarket variations.


   And sometimes, dishes survive. But they change their names. When was the last time you saw somebody proudly selling Chicken Patties or Vegetable Patties at an upmarket restaurant?


   A good patty is a thing of beauty. It has light flaky pastry and a delicious, spicy (but not too teekha) filling made from mutton, chicken or vegetables. The best ones I have had in years were made by a home bakery called Yummies operated by two sisters Lalita and Geetika in Delhi’s Maharani Bagh. But big-time chefs are not as down-to-earth as home bakers so you will get quiches and flans made to French recipes but not old-fashioned patties.


   Fortunately, the Indian-style patty is too delicious for us to allow it to go away, so it turns up again and again under different names. Last week, I tried one version at an airport lounge. Except that it was not called a patty. It was called a Calzone. (So Italian, so fancy, right?)


   This may sound pretentious (and yes, it is) but oddly enough, the name may have a vague appropriateness. These days, we think of a Calzone as a stuffed pizza largely because Italian-American pizzerias treat the Calzone as such. Their Calzones are made from pizza dough and baked in a pizza oven.


   But Italian-Italians (as distinct from their American cousins) don’t see it that way at all. For them, a Calzone is a completely distinct dish. And in Apulia in the south, it is often deep-fried (and called a panzerotto) and made from a different kind of dough. In fact, if you do a little digging, you discover that a Calzone is really a medieval samosa. Or a patty.


   Yes, seriously.


   In the 9th Century, Arabs began making a dish called a sanbusak. They may have got a version of the dish from Iran because sanbusa is a Farsi word meaning anything triangular. We date the sanbusak to the 9th Century because that’s where we find the first surviving recipe in an Iraqi text. But, it might be even older. What is clear is that by the 13th Century, it had been taken by the Arabs all around the world.


"The only real difference between our patties and most versions of the Calzone is that we don’t often use cheese in patties."

   While the sanbusak (with different similar names) became a staple all over the Middle East, ways of making it differed. The Arabs fried it but they also baked it. As the dish travelled, different countries chose one of those two techniques. Mostly, they stuck to the triangular shape. In India, the sanbusak became the samosa, but we rarely baked it, preferring the fried version.


   The Spanish, on the other hand, liked to put it in the oven. In some parts of Spain, it became a Coca. But in Valencia, it became the empanada. The empanada travelled on its own journeys. The Spaniards took it to Central America from where it spread across the continent which is why many of us think of it as a South American dish. It became so popular in Portugal that the Portuguese act as though they invented it.


   By the time it got to Southern Italy, the insistence on the triangular shape had vanished. A crescent shape was preferred (there are those who see this as a tribute to its Islamic origins but I am not convinced). All over Italy, you will now find variations on this basic dish. Some are called Calzone (the name became internationally famous after Americans began using it.) Deep fried versions may be called Panzerotti. In Sicily, they are sometimes called Cudduruni. Italian-Americans have their own varieties called Stromboli (rectangular rather than semi-circles).


   When we talk about South East Asian food, we sometimes forget how important the Arab influence was in Muslim countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. For instance, satay, one of the most famous dishes in the region, is a local variation on the skewered kababs that Arabs made.


   Various claims are made for the Curry Puff (a kind of baked patty) popular in the region. Because it is clearly from the Calzone/Empanada family, it has been suggested that it emerged from the Portuguese empanada in the 15th Century.


   A more plausible explanation is that, like satay, it came to South East Asia with the Arabs. (If the origin is indeed the empanada, then it is of Arab origin anyway, I guess.)


   Which leaves only one question: where did the British get their pasty from? This is important because many people believe that the British introduced their empire to patty-like snacks modelled on their own Cornish pasty. While there is no shortage of historical references to the Cornish pasty, there is no agreement over its origins. One likely origin is, predictably, the empanada of Portugal and Spain. If that is so, then the pasty (and therefore the patty and the Calzone) are cousins of our samosa.


   So, when I see people calling a patty a Calzone on the grounds that this sounds more sophisticated, all I can do is chuckle. The only real difference between our patties and most versions of the Calzone is that we don’t often use cheese in patties.


   But even that may be changing. A couple of months ago in Ahmedabad, I was startled to discover that the city is in the grip of a ‘puff’ craze. A ‘puff’ in Ahmedabad terms, is not so different from the South East Asian Curry Puff in that it has flaky pastry, is baked, and uses spicy fillings. But here’s the thing: in cheese-crazy Ahmedabad, they often put processed cheese in their puffs. That brings it even closer to the Calzone.


   As the world gets more and more international, food trends often combine. But in the case of the empanada, the calzone, the patty, the puff and the samosa, it is a little like an old Manmohan Desai movie where children of the same parents, who were separated early in life, go on to make their own destinies before discovering one day that as different as they may now seem, they are actually brothers and sisters.


   As glad as I am that this is happening, I have just one request: can we please revive the great Indian patty tradition?


   Let’s not allow our distinctive patties to go the way of masala popcorn and become distant memories. A well-made, flaky, spicy patty is so delicious that we owe it to ourselves to hold on to it.


   And forget all that stuff about British or Portuguese origins. It is as Indian as the samosa.




  • Ravi John 06 Nov 2022

    Lovely informative article as usual. Please write about the different biryanis especially the accompaniments that go with it. Hoping for this I the future.

Posted On: 04 Nov 2022 11:20 AM
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