A special dish for Purim: chicken sambusak
FoodHidden fillings

A special dish for Purim: chicken sambusak

Beyond hamantaschen

Chicken sambusak (Photo by Jessica Grann)
Chicken sambusak (Photo by Jessica Grann)

When we think of food for Purim, we almost always think of hamantaschen cookies, which have become an integral part of our holiday, but there are many other special foods prepared by Jews around the world — often a treat that happens to have a hidden filling.

My understanding is that one prepares stuffed foods to show that not only are there hidden meanings, but that what you see with your eyes does not tell the entire story. Just as a person can appear one way on the outside and be different on the inside, these stuffed foods often look like simple pastries but have surprisingly flavorful and complex fillings.

Sambusak, samosas and empanadas are all close cousins. They are common for Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews whose families hailed from India, Iraq, and across the Middle East and Turkey. For my recipe this Purim, I focus on sambusak made with a chicken filling as an alternative to the ground lamb or beef that I typically use. I mixed the chicken with chickpeas and aromatic spices before stuffing it into my homemade dough and deep frying in oil.

There is something incredibly delicious about a fried meat-filled pastry. I baked one tray of them as well so that I could offer a “healthy” version but, since I rarely make them, I’m inclined to enjoy the fried ones on the holiday.

I’m including my dough recipe, but you can use store-bought frozen empanada dough rounds.

I enjoy cooking and baking foods for Purim that I can use for shalach manot. Sambusak is also a tasty snack to offer friends who stop by for a l’chaim.

Chicken sambusak
Makes 15-30 pieces, depending on the size of the pastry rounds

For the dough
4 cups all-purpose flour
1¼ teaspoons kosher salt
⅓ cup oil
1 cup warm water

For the filling:

2 cups diced or shredded cooked chicken
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 cups of onion, diced
2 tablespoons oil, for frying the onion
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon granulated garlic powder
1 ½ teaspoons cumin
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 rounded teaspoon Aleppo pepper or ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 egg, beaten
2 quarts oil for frying

Prepare the dough first because it needs time to rest before you roll it out.

Put the flour and salt into a large bowl and whisk together, then slowly add the oil into the mixture and stir it with a whisk or fork until well combined. There will be small, pea-sized balls when the oil is well incorporated. Break any larger balls apart with the back of a fork but don’t drive yourself crazy trying to get them all out.

Slowly add the warm water while stirring with a fork, then knead the dough by hand for about 5 minutes or until everything in the bowl is well combined.

Form the dough into a ball and cover with plastic wrap. Let this rest in a warmer area — I use the top of my refrigerator — for 30 minutes to 1 hour. The dough will seem really firm when you finish kneading it, but it softens to a great texture once it has rested.

Chicken sambusak, step by step (Photo by Jessica Grann)

I have experimented a lot with dough for hand pies, and this recipe is a keeper. It has enough oil to make the dough easy to work with, but not one tablespoon more. Tuck this recipe away because this dough is also fantastic for spinach pies and for empanadas.

For the filling, remove the chicken — preferably dark meat — from the bones, shred or dice two cups and set aside.

Rinse and drain one can of chickpeas.

Either run the drained chickpeas through a food processor or mash them by hand with a potato masher — there will just be some chunkier pieces in the filling.

Dice two cups of onion and sauté with 2 tablespoons of oil over a medium flame for 10-12 minutes or until soft and translucent.

Add the chicken to the pan and stir well, then add the salt and spices to the mixture. Mix the spices well and continue to cook for about 2 minutes or until the spices are fragrant.

Add the mashed chickpeas to the pan, stir well and remove the pan from heat.

Add the fresh lemon juice and let the mixture cool for a few minutes. This is the best time to check the flavor. The spices mellow a bit once the sambusak are fried so keep that in mind before adding extra garlic or cumin, but you’ll know right away if you want to add more salt or pepper.

When the flavor is to your liking, stir in one beaten egg.

Set aside until the dough is ready to be filled.

Pull about 15 golf ball-sized balls from the dough, or 30 balls half of that size to make smaller sambusak.

Roll each ball between your hands to make it as round as possible, then press it with the palm of your hand onto a pastry marble slab or a clean, smooth surface countertop. I use a handheld rolling pin for these smaller projects, but you can use a larger rolling pin or even press these out into circles with your hands. The size of the circle will vary depending on the size of the formed dough ball, but the large ones should be about 5 inches across.

Knowing how much filling to use comes with trial and error. Start with a heaping tablespoon and go from there. If you use too much filling, it will seep out and make it difficult to seal the dough. After you’ve prepared a few, you will be able to eye how much filling to place in each one.

Once you place the filling into the middle of the dough circle, fold it over in half and press the edges down and together with your fingers — it will look just like a pierogi.

Using the back of a fork, press around the edges to seal them completely, or roll the edges like a pastry, to get a fluted design.

Some people like to make one at a time, and others like to roll out all the dough at once, then place the filling onto the rounds and seal all of the sambusak at once. I typically roll out one piece at a time and keep the unused dough covered to avoid it from getting dry.

Heat 2 quarts of oil with a high smoke point (coconut, avocado, canola oil) over medium-high heat to 400 F degrees. It helps to have an instant-read digital thermometer to test the temperature of the oil. You may be able to use less oil depending on the width of your pot, but my favorite pot to fry in is very wide and takes 2 full quarts to get the oil about 3 inches deep. You can cool the used oil and use it one or two times if you store it in an airtight container. (A quick tip: If you have extra oil and don’t have a place where you can dump it outside after use, you can add oats to the pan. This works with large amounts of oil and also with leftover cooking grease. The oats will soak up the oil so you can discard it easily into the garbage.)

Place the sambusak into the hot oil and fry on each side for 2-3 minutes or until golden brown. Watch these carefully when frying — 1 extra minute can make a difference and I can tell you from experience that this happens quickly.

Remove each piece with a slotted spoon and set it on a tray lined with paper towels to drain the oil.

You can serve these hot or at room temperature.

If you wish to bake these, paint them with an egg wash and bake for about 25 minutes on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a 400 F oven. The dough is very different when baked. It’s still tasty, but the texture will be more like a thin bread dough.

Once you get used to shaping these, you can come up with so many ideas for different fillings.

Purim seems more relevant this year than any other time in my life. By sharing our Jewish food traditions and connecting to our collective ancestry, we can find unity with each other. It can feel difficult to celebrate holidays when our people are suffering so much, but it’s important to connect to the story and to acknowledge and be grateful for the miracles that God created for our people.

May we all have the faith, strength and heroism of Esther and Mordechai. Chag Purim sameach! We should see miracles and victory over those who wish us harm.

Enjoy and bless your hands! PJC

Jessica Grann is a home chef living in Pittsburgh.

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