Technically, there are several different kinds of Central Asian turnovers, or samsa: beef, lamb, pumpkin, spinach, potato, beef-and-pumpkin, spinach-and-potato.
But in the minds of many Central Asians, there is only one real samsa.
“Beef samsa is the king of all samsa,” said Suriya Yunusova, owner of Uzbek food truck Tabassum, which traverses the Seattle area seven days a week and serves five kinds of samsa, including beef.
Likewise, when I told my husband, who is from Tajikistan, that my favorite samsa was spinach-and-mint, he had words for me.
Rather, one word, repeated (dourly) several times: “Heresy.”
To be fair, beef samsa, fresh from the oven, are succulent. Their skin is flaky and buttery, with rippling cracks like the pattern of wind on sand; having been brushed with egg, they glimmer; they are studded with onion seeds or sesame. Inside is minced beef and onion with salt and cumin. Have a bite, guzzle strong green tea, then cool your palate with pickled carrot-and-garlic salad.
Samsa, also called sambusa, are not fancy food. They are simple, fast and good. There are two places around here to get them: Tabassum and, in Wallingford, the Turkmen/Italian joint Fitchi House. Over in Bellevue, descriptively named eatery Afghan Cuisine serves a close cousin, mantoo.
To clarify: Samsa are nothing like their Indian analogue, the deep-fried, curried-potato-and-peas-filled Indian samosa. They are similar but — apologies to everyone standing in line at the eponymous Pike Place Market window — vastly superior to piroshki, the breaded Slavic turnover. (Truthfully, that restaurant’s beef-and-onion piroshki should more accurately be called samsa.) Where the piroshki in my life have been what I would call heavy on the dough and light on the filling, samsa are stick-to-your-ribs fare.
In Central Asia, where I lived for several years, samsa are ubiquitous. The smell of fresh-baked samsa from massive clay ovens in restaurants floats down alleyways in the morning. In homes before holidays, samsa-making assumes an industrial aspect, with tables covered in paper-thin dough and legions of family members engaged to mince meat and chop onions. In springtime, when the mountain foothills explode in greenery, co-workers bring endless trays of spinach-and-mint samsa to the office.
Yet a truly delicious samsa sticks in one’s mind, whether eaten in a friend’s home in Tashkent or at a railway station in Turkestan, where cookbook author Caroline Eden said she recalls eating “the simplest samsa, just filled with lamb, but flaky and hot, making for a superb start to the day.” Eden, author of two books of regional cuisine, “Samarkand” and “Black Sea,” plans to include a samsa recipe in her next effort, she said.
The experience of eating samsa in Central Asia is an egalitarian one. They are sold most everywhere, including at streetside kiosks, where they are arrayed dozens deep, their triangular points facing the sky like miniature, delicious mountain ranges. I would buy one or two samsa and eat them right there, leaning at a counter in a dusty, sunstruck street, alongside bankers, students, construction workers and farmers in town for the day.
Eating samsa at 3-year-old food truck Tabassum — check its website for locations — most closely mimics Central Asian samsa culture: Purchased from a window, consumed in the street.
But Tabassum’s samsa are better than almost anything I had in Central Asia. Here, the samsa ($5) are overstuffed with filling, whether beef, spinach, chicken curry, squash or mushroom (this last, thoughtful of our delicate American appetites, is vegan). They are as large as your hand. They steam when you bite into them. The dough is flaky, but integral.
Perhaps Tabassum’s only flaw is that it does not serve tea. This is upsetting because tea tannins cut and complement fatty samsa. But Tabassum (which means, aww, “smile”) does the next best thing by locating itself, often, in breweries, where eaters can hold samsa in one hand and an IPA in the other. And Tabassum serves other delicious food, including gleaming mounds of plov, the Central Asian rice-and-beef-and-carrot dish, and tangy, pickled salads of carrot and beet.
Plov, in particular, is a dish I could consume three times a day (arteries allowing). But samsa and its analogues do more to explain the systemic underpinnings of the region’s culinary heritage, said Michael Frachetti, an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis researching Central Asian foodways.
“There is a key question,” Frachetti said. “Do you steam it? Or do you bake it?”
What he means is that samsa sits at the crux of a continental culinary divide. In Southwest Asia, ancient people developed cuisines based on grinding grains and baking dough. In East Asia, ancient people developed cuisines based on boiling and steaming whole grains. (This distinction is incredibly intuitive and also, it blew my mind.)
Central Asia had access to both traditions. So when the question of grinding/baking versus steaming/boiling arose, nifty Bronze Age Central Asians said, “Well, why not both?”
And thus were born the ancient samsa (baked meat pocket) and its cousin, mantoo (steamed meat pocket).
Mantoo, also called manti, can be had at the bustling Afghan Cuisine, located at the center of the Redmond culinary haven that is several blocks of strip malls stuffed with things like hot pot, sauerkraut fish and pork trotters. Come here for dinner on the weekend and expect to wait for a table to the tune of Afghan hit singles (if you don’t understand the words, just know: They’re all about love).
But if you are waiting for mantoo ($12.99), your wait is worth it. Eight mantoo, each the size of a plump apricot, arrive arrayed on your plate like flower petals. They are covered in thick, tangy yogurt, mint, paprika and — an innovation I had not before seen — stewed lentils. Their dough is paper thin; the filling is weighted more heavily toward caramelized onion, with a dash of chili pepper, than beef. Inhale them with a side of strong green tea, flavored with cardamom pods. Ask for extra yogurt.
Samsa and mantoo’s journey to Seattle has not been an easy one. Ali Ibrahimi, the owner of Afghan Cuisine, said he fled the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1983, transiting Pakistan, India, Russia, Austria and Germany before settling in San Francisco, where he learned to cook by working 20-hour days as a caterer.
He opened Afghan Cuisine in Renton seven years ago; a year later, the restaurant burned down. The Redmond iteration opened in 2014. Finally, his son Tobi said, the restaurant is doing well — “but for years, it was a struggle.”
Similarly, Yunusova, the owner of Tabassum, arrived in Seattle in 1996, the wife of a surgeon who had been invited to Harborview on a program for former Soviet medical professionals. Yunusova herself worked as an anesthesiologist in Uzbekistan.
She and her husband redid their medical education here in the United States, she said, while raising two children; she opened the food truck because she wanted to work fewer hours. “That hasn’t gone as planned,” she said.
And in Wallingford, at Fitchi House — the area’s only stationary samsa location — cooking was never a choice for manager Lola Gadaeva, who was raised in Turkmenistan in a family where women were expected to cook from age 10. She moved here recently, after her husband won the green-card lottery in 2015.
Back in Central Asia, they’re restaurateurs, with four restaurants in Turkmenistan and one in Istanbul. Here, they saw a drop-off in business when they changed the name of their restaurant in March — they’d been operating for 18 months as Milano Pizza & Pasta. Fitchi House serves the same Italian fare, with the addition of samsa ($4.99) and their Turkmen equivalent, fitchi ($3.99). Here, samsa are served with a side of pepperoncini in a nod to Central Asian soz, a regional tomato-based salsa.
Based on the number of people who stopped by to pick up pizza orders while I finished my samsa, I imagine the Italian side of the menu is still doing most of the heavy lifting. But Gadaeva said she felt it was important to offer what, to some of her customers in the area’s expanding Central Asian community, is a taste of home. Samsa, mantoo, fitchi — whatever you call these meaty bread pockets, they speak of Central Asia.
Yunusova’s ideal samsa is eaten under a grape-laden arbor next to a rippling creek on a sunny day. She has a pot of black tea, cucumber-and-tomato salad, and a piola, a handle-less teacup, of thick yogurt. She is surrounded by family.
I can picture this scene exactly, because I have had just such a meal. And I can fill in the details: Yunusova and her family are sitting on a tapchan, a raised platform, strewn with pillows and thick velvet bolsters. The creek runs next to an apple orchard carpeted in ankle-high grass; a breeze whispers through the poplars by the creek bed. Rising above the orchard are sheer-faced mountains, scraping the underside of the sky.
As Yunusova bites into the samsa — beef and onion, laded with pockets of sweet sheep fat — a rill of oil and juice runs down her chin.
“It’s a little bit messy,” she acknowledged. And so, so good.
Tabassum: check website for hours and locations; 206-909-4584; tabassum.info
Afghan Cuisine: 14320 N.E. 20th St., Bellevue; 425-641-4020; Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5 -9 p.m.; Saturday noon-10 p.m.; Sunday noon-9 p.m.; closed Monday
Fitchi House: 405 N.E. 45th St., Seattle; 206-545-7499; fitchihouse.com; Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday 11 a.m.-11:45 p.m.; Friday, Saturday 11 a.m.-3 a.m.; closed Tuesday
Correction: Updated August 19, 12:23 p.m. A previous version of this story misstated Yunusova’s profession in Uzbekistan.