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Interview #2: Gladys Shahtou's Sambuxas
"I call myself the Sudanese food ambassador. I also studied politics, so for me it’s a form of soft power."
Welcome to installment number two of Above the Fold! I’m excited to introduce Gladys Shahtou, who founded and runs Sambuxa NYC, a Brooklyn-based catering company with stands at New York street fairs like the Queens Night Market and Smorgasburg. Sambuxa NYC specializes in Sudanese cuisine, and more specifically sambuxas: a Sudanese style of samosa that Gladys describes as a "stuffed nacho," featuring a thin and crisp outer shell that's been carefully folded and tucked around a filling of spiced ground meat (as well as other things that you'll learn about below).
While samosas are commonly thought to have originated from India, they are descendants of samsa, a triangular Persian pastry that traveled to India and exploded in popularity from there. As Omar Mamoon writes in this great samosa roundup for the San Francisco Chronicle:
But samosas actually came to India in the 1300s from Central Asia, where they’re known as samsa (named after pyramids there), and you’ll find different versions and variants all around the world. In the Maldives, people eat bajiyaa that are often filled with fish, and in the Middle East there are the semicircular sambousek, filled with meats or cheese.
Gladys’s sambuxas, the product of a multigenerational recipe (watch her make them as well as other Sudanese dishes here), are but one of the variations that you’ll find in Africa. Gladys was born in Sudan and grew up in Switzerland, and worked at the Swiss Mission as well as the DNC before following through on her dream to launch a food business. “I call myself the Sudanese food ambassador,” she says. “I also studied politics, so for me it’s a form of soft power.” Ahead, Gladys shares how she launched her business, what makes a Sudanese sambuxa unique, and the future of Sambuxa NYC. Also! Following the interview, find a recipe for maultaschen, a very hearty and gigantic German dumpling.
Above the Fold: Can you tell me about the background of Sambuxa NYC as a business, to start? Why was this something you wanted to launch?
Gladys Shahtou: When I was in college in Switzerland, I used to do a lot of cooking for my friends for our get-togethers or parties. And lots of my friends would say, “Oh! One of my friends is having a party, can you do the catering? We’ll pay you.” So that’s how I paid my rent. When I finished college I went into what I studied, politics. I was working in New York, in the Swiss Mission to the UN, and I used to go to a lot of food festivals and street fairs in New York. One of the fairs had like four empanada stands, and I was just like, “Why do they have the same thing over and over again? If we just had one stand that was my sambuxas, that would be amazing.” I started to do research, and I stumbled onto the Queens Night Market, and Smorgasburg, and so on. After the Swiss Mission, I went back to Switzerland and Paris for a bit and then got an internship at the DNC. When that didn't result in a job, due to Trump winning and many people being let go at the DNC, it felt like a sign to finally start my food business.
How much was your mission to be filling a void that you saw out in the marketplace as opposed to the desire to be working in and around food?
It was a combination, because it just kept on coming back into my life. My grandpa worked at the UN so my grandma and my mom, they always used to host receptions at home, and my mom used to do cooking classes and share food. We cooked a lot together. It just kept on showing up in my life in spite of trying to get back into my political career.
Is the word “sambuxa” specifically tied to Sudan?
When I first started out, the business was called Samosa NYC—but I got too many questions of, “Is it Indian?” and I felt that I had to distinguish myself. In the rest of East Africa, they call it sambusa. And in the Middle East they call it sambusa or sambusak. In Sudan specifically, it’s spelled sambuksa, but I didn’t want to write it with a K because I thought the X was cooler and more distinguished.
What distinguishes a Sudanese sambuxa from other varieties?
Sambuxas are much thinner in pastry, and the filling is more meat-focused than Indian samosas. Some East African countries like Kenya and Uganda and North African ones like Egypt make sambuxas as well. They tend to put some peas and carrots in them. Tanzania and Kenya have a lot of history with India, so they use a lot of Indian spices and different curry masalas in theirs. But from what I know from my family specifically, it’s just plain meat, garlic, onion, and spices, nothing else, and then there’s a version filled with feta cheese and dill. Those have always been our fillings, from my mother’s side of the family. Middle Eastern sambuxas tend to also have sweeter spices in them like cinnamon and cardamom. We specifically use dried dill and lots of cumin. My mom’s specific recipe also uses fresh coriander seeds, which gives it a totally different flavor that’s amazing.
Can you tell me more about the gatherings your grandmother used to host? Was she making sambuxas at those as well?
My grandma is Haitian, so she would make Haitian patties, which are like empanadas—but my grandpa is Sudanese, so she had to learn Sudanese cuisine and the technique of sambuxas. We used to wake up early to prepare. My grandma had some help with cooking and prepping, and all of my aunties and my mother and grandmother’s sisters would be there. She used to do these in Sudan, Ethiopia, and New York as well when we had family get-togethers. When I was younger I wasn’t allowed to help— I would be allowed to do the salad, which I thought was amazing. I just remember how people loved those samosas or the patties. They would go away so fast. Another important memory is when my mother made sambuxas in Switzerland. Swiss people are very picky eaters, and when they actually like, demolished and devoured them, I was like, whoa.
How did you learn to make the sambuxas? You started on salads, but when could you get in there and learn?
(Laughs). I think I was about 9 or 10, because it’s very labor intensive, and my mom is a perfectionist when it comes to folding—I’m not quite like her in the folding department. She would always say she didn’t have time to teach me because she had too many to make. And one day, she had a big event, and it was 1 a.m., and she was like “I didn’t sleep, I need to do this.” I said “Ok, I will just do it. You don’t need to teach me.” She went to sleep and I finished them off. I think I made 100 that night. She was shocked, and that was cool.
How did you come up with your style for Sambuxa NYC? Are they more-traditional flavor combinations or did you change them up in any way?
Yes, so the meat one is quite traditional, except for the fact that I add cilantro into it. That’s something that I got from my mom specifically, because we used to shop at Thai grocery stores in Switzerland. I did also incorporate vegan fillings, because there are a lot of vegans at the markets, using diced red bell peppers and potatoes. I also incorporate cheese fillings with feta cheese and dill, which is a traditional Sudanese filling for fatayer, which is our version of an empanada that’s also very popular in the Arab world. And because of my connection to Switzerland I also have raclette cheese fillings.
What about the sauces that go with them?
So, in Sudan we have a hot sauce with every meal. It’s green chili with peanut butter, lime, fresh dill or cilantro, salt, and pepper. The way I make my sauce is a bit different, but that’s a trade secret (laughs). But we also have another sauce that’s red chili powder with peanut butter, lime, some water, salt and pepper. That is a very traditional Sudanese dipping sauce. And then our other popular dipping sauce is yogurt, fresh dill, salt, pepper, garlic, cumin, and some sesame oil.
I know things are a bit different now during the pandemic, but when you were selling at the markets, about how many sambuxas were you making at a time whether that was per day, per week, etc.?
Initially, if it was one market, I would make about 500 sambuxas. But then the demand went up and I had to do 800 per market. On a weekend, I could be making about 2,000 of them. Then the catering kicked in and I kept getting a lot of orders, at least one order a day for about 400. It was a lot of work. Sometimes for the market, I wouldn’t sleep. Let’s say I’d make about 2,000, and if it was a very busy day at Smorgasburg, then I would literally have to go find an open store that still sold meat like a halal market, get my ingredients, go to the kitchen, make more overnight, and go straight to the next market. Maybe I’d go home for a quick shower. It was a lot, because I do everything on my own.
That was my next question. Wow.
Yeah. But I’ve had a little break now, thank god.
What has the past year been like? Obviously the markets weren’t possible, but how did you transition into doing more of the videos on Instagram?
I watch a lot of cooking shows, and I just wanted to teach people more about our cuisine. People don’t really know much about our cuisine, Sudanese cuisine. They know, like—Darfur. South Sudan. The conflict. So I really wanted to actually allow people to know more about Sudan. It’s such a unique cuisine. North, East, South, and West Africa goes through Sudan to go to the Middle East or to go to the pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, so we have Middle Eastern food. We have Mediterranean food. We had a lot of people settle from the Middle East; lots of Saudi Arabian tribes would settle in Sudan. We have lots of Syrians in Sudan, lots of Greek people, Turkish people. And all of Africa. So you can imagine that kind of melting pot of food.
Do you see the sambuxas that you are making as something that incorporates your political experience and background?
If you talk about history, I did my research. Sambuxas are actually Persian, they were called samsa, but it took over India by storm, with the quantity of people there. Now it’s known as the Indian samosa. But I grew up in so many places, and I got to eat so many different stuffed doughs. I was familiar with pierogi, I was familiar with empanadas, I was familiar with the Caribbean stuffed doughs, and all of African cuisine, like West African meat pies. So I was able to incorporate all of that into my business, as well as just the importance of sharing your culture. CNN used to have a show called “My City, My Life,” and they showed the food first. Because everybody likes to eat, and that’s the first thing you use as a cultural barrier breaker. We have a salad in Sudan that is literally like a Greek salad—it’s made with scallions, tomato, and feta cheese, but our dressing is just different. It’s a peanut butter dressing. But it’s literally a Greek salad, and it came from the Greeks and the Ottomans, to Sudan.
You mentioned your mom was very specific about folding techniques. You are not as strict, but do you still see making sambuxas as an art?
Oh absolutely. It is an art. It took me a while to perfect the dough-making, I used to mess it up. My pastry would stick together, or it would get holes or break. I’m trying new techniques with putting different yams into the dough for color. That’s still getting perfected. But in Sudan, they are very strict about traditional family recipes that have been passed down from mothers to daughters, grandmothers, etc. And presentation is big. The fold has to be a perfect triangle; it has to look beautiful. That’s why they don’t let just anybody make the food, because if you have guests over, which in Sudan is constant, people talk (laughs). Hosting in Sudan in general is big—anybody who has been to Sudan can tell you, we are the most hospitable people. Like if you don’t have anything, and you just walk somewhere in Sudan and meet a Sudanese, they will give you a bed, clothes on your back, food, and try to get you a job. That’s just the kind of people that we are.
Now that markets are hopefully reopening soon, have you been thinking about how you want to be bringing Sambuxa NYC back? I’m also thinking about the sheer amount of work you were doing before, and if having this break changed how you want to approach things going forward.
So, what I’ve done during the pandemic is go to Sudan finally after like an 8-year break of not going home, and that’s just helped me reconnect with our cuisine. Even if the markets open back up, I want to go back to Sudan at least once a year and just reconnect and also give my followers an insight into the authentic Sudan. An authentic kitchen doesn’t have to be clean and picture-perfect and modern. I want to show how people really cook and how good it is. And I’ll be bringing Sambuxa NYC back to the markets and to catering. It’s a lot of work, but what this break showed me is just that I love what I do. And this is my life’s purpose.
Last question: When you are folding sambuxas, is there any particular music you like to listen to?
I like to listen to Sudanese music when I’m getting into the mood of making a video. It helps me channel my family and my ancestors and feel like they’re cooking with me. But also, I like to listen to Caribbean dancehall music, because it gets you pumped up. There’s actually a funny song called “Cook.” It’s a dancehall song and I used to listen to it as a young child and teen. And it just talked about some woman in the kitchen, with a restaurant, a cookbook, something like that. I used to love that song. And now I’m actually doing it!
What it is:
Maultaschen are hefty, ravioli-like dumplings that originated in the Swabia region of Germany. Delightfully, the word “maultaschen” loosely translates to “mouth bags.” They often fall into two main styles: Fully pressed closed on the ends, like padded manila envelopes, or left open on the sides, the product of making one very long stromboli-esque tube and cutting it into cylinders.
Why you should make it:
This recipe comes from cookbook writer Meike Peters, and is the latter open-ended style. You’ll have to click through this link to find the recipe regardless, but it’s absolutely worth reading Meike’s intro, which explains her personal connection to making them as well as gems like this:
This dish has a long history, with a variation of stories about its origin. One says that the Cistercian monks of the Maulbronn Monastery invented Maultaschen as a sneaky way to eat meat during Lent. The meat in this dish is hidden under the pasta dough so it cannot be seen by God, this also led to the dish’s nickname Herrgottsbescheißerle, meaning God cheater in German.
To make maultaschen (or, more specifically, these maultaschen), you roll out one giant 35-inch-long sheet of doughbefore piling it high with a bear hug of a filling containing ground beef, sausage, bacon, lots of spinach, sour cream, nutmeg, and some soaked bread. Lest you wonder, as I did, how the open-ended parcels don’t explode upon contact with boiling water, here’s how that part works: You gently lower your maultaschen into said water one at a time, then immediately clap on a lid, remove the pot from the heat, and let them sit in their own placid hot tub until they’re firmed-up and pruny, like fingertips after too much time in a human-sized hot tub. From there, you can serve them with broth or pan-fry them in butter (which I’ll always choose when presented with the option).
The above interview was condensed and edited. Interview subjects are paid an honorarium for taking the time to share their knowledge and experience.
Eventually this will come out every other Tuesday, but I’ll be publishing a bit more often at the onset—in part to get into my own groove, in part because Substack is featuring Above the Fold on their homepage this week and I shamelessly want to make the most of it, and in part because, like Kristin Wiig’s “Surprise Lady,” I’m just so freakin’ excited to keep introducing you to new dumpling pros.
I used a KitchenAid pasta sheeter attachment to save time and arm energy, and it worked well!