Ethiopian Sambussa -- healthy baked cousins of samosas with phyllo dough!

Don't you find it very interesting how two objects in two vastly different cultures still have such similar names! Origin of the words or its etymology as its called has always fascinated me. Particularly for words that were derived centuries ago when the means of sharing/communication about cuisines, spices and techniques was so limited (not like today where one can post a new ingredient and the rest of the world gets to know about it right then and there, thanks to the ever-spreading world-wide web!)

So when I visited a local Ethiopian restaurant a year or so ago and saw an appetizer named 'Sambussa' with the description of 'thin dough shell stuffed with lentils and spices" I was pretty sure that this was a variation of Indian samosas. A quick peek at wiki told me that the name samosa derives from the Persian name 'sanbosag' (having to do something with the crescent shape apparently) and from their many cultures have their own variation of a stuffed fried dough filled with spicy vegetables/meats with similar names such as sanbusak in Arab, samsa in Turkic nations, samosas in south-east asia and sambussa in Ethiopian/Somali regions.

Sambussa is an Ethiopian/Somali appetizer cousin of our samosas. Thin flaky dough crust is stuffed with lentils, onions, ginger and Ethiopian spices and then fried till golden brown. What I have here is a healthy take on it where I have used phyllo dough as the wrapper and baked it instead of frying it. You know I am liking phyllo dough (that of baklava, spanakopita fame!) more and more as I cook with it!

The filling was cooked lentils with the berbere spice mix that I had prepared earlier here. The sambussas were then baked till golden brown instead of deep fried. The results: absolutely did not miss the fried part! I'll surely be making more samosas (and sambussa) with baked phylo dough from now on!

You can tune the spices and the filling to your liking.. make it like regular samosas with potatoes, peas, cumin, coriander, chili powder or use the traditional lentil filling but instead of berbere use a mixture of garam masala, cumin, coriander, chili, paprika powder.. in essence go wild with whatever suits your fancy for the day!

1 phyllo dough sheet per sambussa (frozen, thawed for a few hours)
olive oil
1/4C dried lentils
1Tbsp chopped onions
1tsp berbere spice mix (see recipe below)
juice of 1lime
1/2tsp dried ginger (or fresh grated)

Preheat oven to 375F

Prepare the filling:
Cook lentils per package direction. After they are cooked, mash them slightly with a fork. Add onions, berbere, ginger powder, lime juice and salt. Mix well. Adjust the spices per taste. Set aside.

Prepare the phyllo dough:
Spread out one phyllo dough sheet on your kitchen  countertop. Brush the insides with olive oil using a kitchen brush or your fingers, like so:
Carefully fold the sheet in one third. Phyllo is very flaky and tears easily so be very careful when pressing it into thirds. Brush the one-third side facing you with a bit of olive oil (particularly the edges).

Add 2 spoonful of filing an inch away from the edges, like so:
Fold the phyllo in triangulars like so:
Continue folding until you reach the end of the sheet. If the filling starts to ooze out a bit, try to tuck it in and fill less the next time. When you reach towards the end, brush a bit of olive oil to the last fold and tuck the ends in.

Spread the sambussas on a baking sheet.
Bake in a pre-heated 375F oven on upper third rack for 35mins or so until the tops are golden brown.

Serving suggestion:
I served these with a simple tamarind chutney (tamarind concentrate + water + sugar + salt + chili powder). You can also serve with a green chutney.

I am reposting the berbere spice mix recipe for Priya's cooking with seeds event, hosted this month for fenugreek seeds by SE of Denufood. I never knew fenugreek seeds are an important part of the Ethiopian cuisine, but it is so, read on for more:

Berbere spice mix:
Fenugreek seeds is something I add to many Indian recipes, but its one of those ingredients which always works behind the scenes and rarely makes as the star of the dish. When I was working on the Ethiopian recipes, I came across many recipes of berbere spice mix where it was specifically noted to *not skip* the fenugreek seeds.. that caught me surprised! I always thought that fenugreek seeds were the Indian cooking thing like asafoetida but turns out it has a strong place in Ethiopian foods too. 

In Ethiopia it is used mainly for Injera fermentation and I think from the Injera it has managed to squeeze into other Ethiopian knows flavors too like berbere spice blend and Ethiopian clarified butter (tesme). Fenugreek seeds in Ethiopian Amharic language are called abesh and are widely knows for their medicinal properties.

Re-posting here the recipe for berbere spice blend and sending it straight to SE so she can add this new spice blend to some of her delicious and spicy currys too :) The original post on Ethiopian cuisine can be found here.
1/4C dried red chilis - de-seeded for hot chilis
1/4tsp fenugreek seeds
1Tbsp paprika
1/4tsp garam masala
1tsp cumin powder
1tsp coriander powder
1/4tsp cinnamon
1/4tsp all-spice
1/4tsp cloves
1/4tsp whole black peppers
1/2tsp onion powder
1/4tsp garlic powder
1/2tsp ginger powder
1/2tsp salt
1/4tsp dried sacred basil powder (optional)

Grind all the ingredients in a spice grinder and set aside. Keeps for a couple of weeks.


Deepthi Shankar said…
how similar some foods are isn't it. sambusa looks nice
Preeti Kashyap said…
This is indeed a lovely recipe. I love the fact that you used phyllo dough!
Looks damn tempting dear... I simply loved it. Wish to taste one now. Asusual awesome click.
Pari Vasisht said…
Hi. I have read earlier somewhere too about this similarity between Sambussa and samosa, nevertheless the preparation looks really beautiful.
The phyllo has a fantastic texture alas I don't get that also here. Keep up the good work dear.
PJ said…
Deesha, exactly and they are even named something so similar! Glad you liked it.

Preeti, thanks! Phyllo dough is such a good substitute for frying.. now I wonder why I wasn't phyllo dough for so many years.

Pavithra, thanks! I am so glad you liked it.

Pari, you may get it there in frozen section.. I have seen it in a lot of places in frozen sections.
SE said…
even I am amazed with the similarity of words !! Ethopian's also use ghee as a regular in their cuisine !!

these look delicious..
Unknown said…
Never tried Ethopian food...but sounds somewhat towards it?..Sambusaa in the picture looks awesome..
Finla said…
Love that you use dphyllo and it is baked than deepfried, looks crunchy delicous. I can hear them crunch from here :-)
PJ said…
SE, thanks! Thanks for hosting the fenugreek seeds event.

A2Z vegetarian cuisine, oh yeah, Ethiopian food is much closer to Indian food.. they have a fermented bread, Injera, made out of teff which is similar to our dosa.. and the curries and very similar to Indian ones too.

Happy Cook, Isn't it! I am loving phyllo dough more and more as I use it.. it keeps the crunch without the deep dry.
Sayantani said…
you are right this looks so much like our samosa.i like the way you tweaked the filling ingredients. you are am amazing cook your space.
Cool Lassi(e) said…
Wow! lovely snack. Sorta like an africanized spanakopita! Looks fabulous dear!I hate working with phyllo cause its soo delicate and i tear it more often than not. :(
Sushma Mallya said…
wow delicious snack,yesterday even i made rolls out of these sheets, your look awesome and filling is quiet unique and simple...
Rachana said…
I love Sambusa and have had it number of times whenever we go to the Ethiopian restaurant! Yours look so perfect and yummy!
PJ said…
Sayantani, thanks so much for your sweet words! I am so happy you enjoyed this recipe :)

Cool Lassie, africanized spanakopita is such a true description of this! Yeah, phyllo dough is a bit tricky and I hate it when it breaks. In my experience it tears a lot if it has been too dry.. so if I leave the sheets out for a long time or say don't rub them with olive oil, they start to tear a lot.

Sushma, thanks! Looking forward to your phyllo dough rolls! Aren't these just wonderful substitution for frying though..
Hayley said…
Hey PJ
That's new and intresting recipe..looks so delicious and your step by step pics!! I've used fillo pastry 3-4 times in the past..will try it out your version too..thanx for sharing
Oh my PJ , thats an awesome post ...the similiarities...the history and write ups and everythng...

And the baked deliciousness that u eat yummy but very healthy always....
And i would love to sink my teeth or rather bite into these delicious bites...
and ur spice mix n tamrind chutney rocks too-oh i love tangy chats so so muc!!!!

and yeah babes google hasnt been in touch at all and i jus dont know what to do....thanx for stopping by at the party n adding to the cheer dear....
indosungod said…
Wow! what a tasty and stunning beauty. Love it.

I have to go Ethiopian for a few weeks to give all you have been posting a try. First to get to is the berbere spice mix.
Cham said…
The only thing I hate is brushing with butter :(
They look awesome ur version!
Latha said…
sambusa looks yummy.
PJ said…
Rachana, aren't sambussa the most delicious! I love the sauce they serve with it too.. I should try making it sometimes.

Jagruti, thanks! I am so glad you liked the post and the recipe. Yeah, phyllo dough is pretty good.. I am glad you liked it :)

VanillaStrawberrySpringfields, thanks! I am so glad you liked it.. yeah they were very crunchy and delicious.. didn't miss the non-fried part at-all. Oh, I wish the feed thing would work soon for you now.. keeping my fingers crossed.

Indo, thanks! I hope you try it and do let me know how it goes :)

Cham, yeah, olive oil is much better that way.. bit healthier fats. Thanks! glad you like this version.

Latha, thanks, I am so glad you liked these!
Namitha said…
Lovely...with all these pics you are tempting me to try crunchy munchy....
shahana said…
Never tried baked samosas.Thanks for giving this idea!!
Beautiful presentation as always!!!
Nice presentation, healthy and yummmy recipe, love your detailed methods, great post!!
PJ said…
Gulmohar, thanks! I do hope you try it and let me know how it goes.

shahana, thanks! I am so glad you liked the baked samosas.. with phyllo dough I didn't miss the baked part atall.

Treat and Trick, thanks! I am so glad you liked the post.
Vijitha said…
First time here. You have a lovely space. I had been to a small Ethiopian restaurant in San Jose couple of times. First time, I couldn';t really enjoy the fermented smell of the bread (like our dosa) and as I visited that place often I started loving the cuisine.
Deepa G Joshi said…
they sound also same isnt it, sambussa..samosa..sambussa.. samosa..LOL..hehehe..I am here being Peter repeater..:P

The dough looks so nice..I wish I could get all these things here and that too not at very exorbitant prices..the click makes me to grab one..
Cicily Antony said…
Awesome...loved the name samossas cousin... :)
Sunitha said…
Very interesting. I find it quite intriguing how so much of what we call authentic cuisine actually is inspired an other. Thanks for the detailed information like your thought process.
Spice said…
Don't u like wiki.... how it clear the doubts I just love it....never knew about fenugreek being used by other cuisines.....thanks to your research on ethopian cuisine now I feel like trying some and samosa by any name any filling is always welcome.......berbere spice mix sounds plenty of fenugreek seeds also...bookmarking this one......
Priya Suresh said…
Again a new dish from a new cuisine...delectable snacks.
PJ said…
VS, welcome to my blog! I am so glad you liked this space. I know what you mean, injera can be a bit strong the first time you eat it but I think later on the taste grows on you. There is a good Ethiopian restaurant near Saratoga, if you like the food, you should give that a try!

Deepa, thanks! This is a frozen dough so you may get it at a middle eastern or international market in the frozen section.

Cicily, thanks! I am so glad you liked it :)

Nostalgia, exactly! Samosa seems so much ours, right? until you dig out much history and find thta the name and likely the dish is inherited from Persia. It just amazes how at that time sharing of infomation happened so much across the continents.

Spice, I know, wiki is my favorite too! It just digs up information on any random object that you can think of :)

Priya, thanks, I am so glad you liked this dish!
Siddhi Shirsat said…
wow pj lovely snack...had nvr heard of it, thnx for sharing...its quite surprising that the names r similar...nice recipe..thy r very crunchy n surely tasty
Fathima said…
never knew samosa had an Ethiopian cousin! thanks for sharing the info and a great recipe!
PJ said…
Siddhi, thanks! Isn't it amazing though how two different dishes in two different cultures can be so similar.. and whats more even have such similar names!

Fathima, thanks! I am so glad you liked this samosa's cousin :)
Joanne said…
Ethiopian food is the best. I mean how could you not love a type of food where you literally eat the bread off the table. I love that you used phyllo dough here! Way healthier and super delicious.
Padhu Sankar said…
Wow! looks gorgeous! Your step by step pics are excellent .I love all the photos in your blog and my favorite sweet orange marmalade photo.
kamalabhoopathy said…
Lovely snack with a different name looks yummy.
PJ said…
Joanne, thanks! Ethiopian food is my favorite too.. and yes, I love the injera that was used as a plate because it soaks up all of these delicious flavors :)

Padhu, thanks! I am so glad you liked all the photos :)

Kamala, thanks! I am so happy you liked the sambussas.
Radhika said…
That looks like a perfect snack! The spice mixture with lentils sounds really good!
Arti said…
Samosas look great...nice pics ..looks absolutely mouth watering...
Parita said…
I love name name sambussa, got a nice ring to it na? Isnt wikepdedia the best? i mean u just get everything on that site! I loved the filling, very new and different, i wish we get phyllo sheets here as well. Step by step pics are amazing, keep up the good work!
Thanx so much for stopping by PJ, and u made my day as usual sweetie ...did my new post update in ur reader?
Sarah Naveen said…
Wow!! My Fav!!!My first choice, when ever i go to Ethiopian or Afghan restaurants..So yummy and perfect..
PJ said…
Radhika, thanks, yeah, the lentil and berebere is my favorite samosa filing from now on.

Arti, thanks and welcome to my blog! I am so glad you liked the sambussas.

Parita, so agree about wiki.. it sure is a treasure of information! You might get phyllo dough in the frozen section of a supermarket.

vanillaStrawberrySpringfields, I dont think it did.. sorry, I just hopped by to see what was going on :)

Sarah, thanks! I am so glad you liked the sambussas.
Urmi said…
Wish you and your family a vey Happy Holi.
Very nice, interesting and lovely dish. Looks yummy and tempting.
ruchikacooks said…
I knew it..As soon as you posted the Ethiopian platter, i was expecting more..They taste so much like the Indian ones..only filling is different..Looks good PJ, crispy and crunchy and healthy!

PJ, I am hosting the home remedies event this month, got any tricks in your sleeve?
PJ said…
Babli, thanks and a very happy holi to you too!

Ruchika, heh heh, i was waiting to try some baked sambussa.. its the best way to get the guilt out of eating samosas, isn't it? :D Wow, home remedies sounds interesting.. I don't know many, but my Mom does.. count me in :)
Lele said…
Okay, not ONLY is ethiopian possibly my favorite cuisine of all time, I have phyllo dough SITTING AROUND MY FRIDGE. Going on my list to make ASAP! Thank you! Also, I had no idea berebere was so easy to make. Score!
Anjum said…
Awesome healthy samosas.
An award waiting for u!