What's in a Name? Samosa, Singara & Semantics

What does it mean now that America knows the difference between a singara and a samosa? Indian-American writer and James Beard award winner, Mayukh Sen, grapples with his many identities. 

"That's a beautiful name," my friend's mother, Smita, told me. “Very poetic.” 

We were looking at a samosa. She’d offered me one as a pre-dinner snack before I headed home, but I politely declined. In doing so, I’d accidentally let it slip that my Bengali-speaking family called the samosa by another name entirely: singara. She found this curious and bewildering, for she’d never heard the word before. 

The Trivedis were Gujarati. They lived in the house behind my own family's in Edison, a pocket of New Jersey saturated with immigrants from India and their children, American-born kids like me. This incident must've been just after the millennium, when I was eight years old. The image is crystalline in my head, because it marked the first and final time I'd ever uttered the word singara to anyone outside my family. 

And what an odd feeling this episode provoked. Though I don’t believe Smita’s intentions were anything but sacrosanct, I felt exoticized; some odd Bengali kid speaking in tongues to an Indian-American who couldn’t quite understand him. 

Look at the hard facts of my biography — Jersey born and raised, brown skin — and you may be tempted to describe my childhood as straddling two worlds, Indian and American. I believe it’d be more apt to identify three worlds: Indian, American, and Bengali. There weren’t too many Bengali people in my school, where Indians nearly outnumbered white students, or my neighbourhood, where Indians were the majority. 

In either setting, I couldn’t quite follow discussions about dandiya or bhangra. Struggling to keep up with these conversations led to me being boxed out of them entirely. I had a terribly difficult time articulating my own family’s traditions — say, what happens at Durga Puja — to any other Indian kids I knew. The idea of explaining to them what these practices were struck me as horrifically exhausting, so I didn’t bother to try. Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy, but this fed a sense of displacement from my own community of Indians, as if I couldn’t possibly negotiate my Bengali identity with an Indian one. 

I’m afraid these irreconcilable differences extended to what I ate. Growing up in the States, it could feel as if America’s perception of Indian food, chiseled by restaurants, clung to an incomplete and stubborn myth of what constituted this rather large country’s cuisine. Regional valences got flattened to the point of erosion. If there is a hierarchy of Indian foods in America, I’ve long felt that the foods of West Bengal (yes, even our sweets) exist in its peripheries. 

The inside of an Indian store in the US

The singara had been a casualty of the great American forgetting of West Bengal and its gastronomic delights. The samosa has won out: It is one of those items that America has come to equate with its ongoing myth of Indian food, along with other imports like chicken tikka masala, biryani, mango lassi. These are the models of what’s defined American taste for Indian food for decades. Simplification is what happens, inevitably, to a diaspora’s food in transit; there’s a dissonance between the realities of what we hunger for and what the world thinks we crave, because we are so easily perceived as a monolith.  

I don’t mean to be overdramatic about my relationship to a small, fried pyramid of produce such as the singara. Blame my vocation: I've been writing about food, professionally, for about a year now, and it’s an experience I’d liken to sitting on a therapist's couch. Food media thrives on economizing the personal, so my job has demanded I become more introspective about the food I eat and how I talk about it. You must splay your appetite open for the rest of the world.

The language we deploy around food is fraught, strewn with complications about who we believe ourselves to be. I’d been reminded of this all over again when Bon Appetit, based in New York, ran an article on the singara earlier this year. I was profoundly distressed; I didn't know what to say. It was as if my privacy had been invaded, as if someone had displayed my baby photos in a museum. Who had been let in on my dirty little Bengali secret? 

Leave aside the article’s somewhat confused language, interchangeably using ‘Bengali’ and ‘Bangladeshi.’ The article’s tone was one of discovery and wonder, an echo of what Smita Trivedi had told me many years before, now broadcast to a much larger audience. Reading it, I got the sense that America nudging itself towards more regional specificity, that it was beginning to move on from the idea of India they thought they’d eaten and realising that there are corners of this country they haven’t yet tasted. 

It also forced me to contemplate my own ignorance. I hadn’t been aware of the subtle differences between the singara and samosa—that the singara is often stuffed with a coleslaw of cauliflower, peas, and potatoes; that it's smaller than its more popular cousin; that it’s shaped like more of a pointed triangle than the samosa’s more forgiving, less angular shape. 

I wanted to fact-check these claims, so I shared my findings with my mother, the sage who first taught me what the word singara even was. I’d been vaguely peeved that she hadn’t told me about any differences between the samosa and the singara. When I confronted her, she fussed around a bit, telling me about different fillings, struggling to explain it herself before telling me it didn’t really matter. “There isn’t a difference, really,” she told me. “They’re both Indian.” 

Mayukh Sen is an Indian-American writer and James Beard award winner, living in New York. Illustration by Shawn D'Souza.