Nothing says Uzbek street food like a savoury stuffed pastry. Uzbekisan’s answer to hot pockets (but way better), the somsa (or samsa/Самса) is an inescapable part of daily life in Uzbekistan, where taxi drivers and policemen line up for the tasty snacks early in the morning, and national food cafés and street kiosks light up tandoor ovens to prepare the day’s offerings. Seasonally variable, these delicious pillows of puff pastry happiness come stuffed in vegetarian options ranging from potatoes to pumpkin, or for carnivores, they’re packed with lamb, beef, or chicken.
What makes Самса special compared to other stuffed pastries from around the world? It may well be the way they’re cooked. Typically, but not always, the pastries are baked in a wood fire tandoor oven. Typically, but not always, they’re brushed with lamb lard which gives them a distinctive flavour, but not so much that they’re overly greasy. Typically, but not always, the Самса come stuffed with onions, and are lightly salted. The great thing about this versatile snack, is that there’s not a wrong, or a right way to cook them.
Recipes vary by region, like plov and lag’mon, so a Самса in one part of the country (or another part of town) may be different that what’s sold at your favorite street kiosk. In Tashkent, the shape usually, but not always, determines the contents. This is more of an identification aide than anything, but again… not a hard set rule. Triangle shape might indicate potato filling, square pillows could be meat, teardrop shape might be chicken, and circles might mean they’re stuffed with spinach. Shape may also indicate the method of cooking. If not baked in a wood fire tandoor, a typical gas or electric oven can also be used, with the later being less greasy.
Other places the pastries are all the same shape, so you won’t know unless they’re labeled, or you could ask the vendor what s/he has that day. In Parkent, about an hour and half up into the foothills east of Tashkent, they make a special flat green or moder somsa which is really something special. Stuffed with seasonal greens and lightly seasoned with onion and garlic, these can only be found in special places in the city.
The Самса is not limited to Uzbekistan, or even Central Asia. A popular street food all over this part of the world, you can find nearly the exact same thing in kiosks and cafés in Kazakstan, Tajikistan, and other neighbouring countries. The concept extends to the Middle East, where similar stuffed pastries are known in both Arabic and Hebrew as sambūsak. Further east in Uigher China, travelers will notice only subtle differences, where like the noodle dish lagman, the Turkic linguistic group also shares similarities in national cuisine. Further north in the Russian Federation, and even across the world, any café or restaurant featuring Central Asian cuisine can’t possibly be considered authentic unless Самса is featured prominently on the menu.