Sambusak are a popular treat throughout the Middle East. Their history is long — they have been enjoyed since the Persian Babylonian Empire and their name comes from the Persian word sanbosag, which means “beautiful triangle.”
These turnover pastries, similar to hand pies, are stuffed with a variety of fillings, from ground lamb, beef and chicken to spinach, feta cheese and even sweet almond and walnut. Sambusak are the ancient ancestors of similar pastries like Indian samosas, Latin American empanadas, Italian calzones and Israeli bourekas. Food historian Gil Marks stated that chickpea sambusak have been part of the Jewish Babylonian menu since the 1300s, and served for Shabbat lunches and holidays like Shavuot, Hanukkah and Purim.
Sambusak bel tawa (chickpea turnovers) are a classic of the Jewish Iraqi kitchen. My Iraqi grandmother served them as an hors d’ouevres whenever she was hosting guests, for gatherings large or small. Still served in Iraqi homes around the Diaspora, chickpea sambusak are especially popular in Israel. They have a delicious complexity of flavor, thanks to the earthy savoriness of cumin and curry powder, a historical testament to the way Indian spices impacted the Jewish cuisine of Iraq. The spiced, nutty, buttery chickpeas and sweet caramelized onions contrast perfectly with the crisp, pillowy dough.
Of course, all this deliciousness is matched by the many steps involved in making the sambusak. The chickpeas need to be soaked overnight, mashed and seasoned (though you can use canned in a pinch). The onions need to be fried. The dough needs to be kneaded and allowed to rise. The turnovers need to be formed and then fried. A lot of work but truly justified when the results are this spectacular — plus, they’re packed full of protein, fiber and antioxidants.
We eat these vegan, deep-fried bites of heaven as a snack, appetizer or as a light meal with a salad.
Cooking notes: Sambusak (fried or not fried) freeze beautifully in airtight packaging. Just thaw them before frying or reheating. Fresh sambusak can be stored in the refrigerator and then reheated in a low oven.
For the stuffing:
- 1 lb dried or canned chickpeas
- 4 Tbsp olive oil
- 4 onions, finely diced
- 1½ Tbsp curry powder
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- salt and pepper
For the dough:
- 1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 cup warm chickpea water
- avocado or vegetable oil for, frying
- 2 carrots, for frying (to keep the oil clear)
- Start by making the stuffing. Wash the chickpeas and soak overnight in lightly salted water.
- Place chickpeas and soaking water in a large saucepan. If using canned chickpeas, use the aquafaba. Cover with more water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer half covered for an hour or until chickpeas are soft. Drain and reserve the water for the dough.
- Mash the chickpeas and set aside.
- To make the dough, mix together the flour, baking powder, salt and olive oil, then slowly add the chickpea water until the dough begins to bind and is stretchy. You may not need to use the whole cup.
- Cover the bowl and let the dough rest for 30 minutes.
- In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil and sauté the onions until golden. Reduce the heat to low, add the mashed chickpeas and fry for 2 minutes. Add curry powder, cumin, salt and pepper and mix well. Fry for 2 minutes then set aside and allow to cool.
- Roll out a small quantity of dough to ¼-inch thickness. Using a 4-inch cookie cutter or glass, cut the dough into circles.
- Stuff each circle with 1 Tbsp of the chickpea mixture. Dab water along one half of the circle and fold the other half over, then close the edge firmly to form a half-moon shape. Repeat until you have used all the dough.
- In a large frying pan, warm ¼-inch oil over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the carrots and a few sambusak, leaving space for them to puff and expand. Fry each side until crisp and golden, about 1 minute.
- Repeat until all sambusak are fried. Serve hot.