Interview #15: Dave Hadley's Samosas
How Samosa Shop combines Indian, West Indian, and New Jersey's flavors into wholly unique creations.
Last month, a tweet displaying a “dumplings around the world” dinner party (below) went viral. I found the replies and quote tweets to be equal parts helpful (I learned about gulha, a Maldivian dumpling with a coconut, tuna, and chili-based filling; keke pua’a, a Samoan variation on Chinese bao; and lavaria, a sweet Sri Lankan dumpling) and instructive, with much debate over whether certain items on said table actually counted as dumplings.
Samosas were particularly divisive, with replies like “what the hell is a samosa doing here” and “I refuse to associate samosas as dumplings.”
There’s probably another newsletter (or five) that could be devoted solely to examining people’s wide-ranging opinions on dumpling taxonomy. While I take a deliberately inclusive view for my own working definition at Above the Fold (see the footnote here), nearly every dumpling book/guide/article I’ve read defines the term differently: some exclude foods that are fried (my brain: but then what about crispy Thai toong thong?), or exclude Italian pastas (is a culurgione really not a dumpling?), or exclude foods that are baked (sini manti are definitely dumplings, don’t even!).
Another Twitter reply offered the taxonomic concept of lumpers vs. splitters: Lumpers take a broad definition of a category, while splitters er on the side of strict, precise sub-categories.
I admit to being a card-carrying lumper when it comes to dumplings—which is why today, you’re going to read about samosas, a filled food with a vast taxonomic network all its own.
While commonly associated with India, samosas actually originated from the Central Asian triangular, meat-filled pastry “samsa,” which itself is derived from the Persian word “sansobag.” There are Middle Eastern sambusek, West African sambusas, Burmese samusas, and—if you’ve read Above the Fold’s second-ever interview with the wonderful Gladys Shahtou—Sudanese sambuxas. Plus many more varieties.
While Indian samosas are likely the most widely known, for chef Dave Hadley, who launched the Denver-based Samosa Shop pop-up in 2020, there’s still plenty of room for recognition. “So many people still ask me, ‘What is a samosa? And I'm just like, ‘Do you live under a rock?’” he says. “It doesn’t offend me, it just makes me know that my mission isn’t done.”
Samosa Shop specializes in flavors that are all close to home for Dave, who grew up in New Jersey in a family with heritage both from southern India and the West Indies—so everything from his mother’s masala, his aunt and uncle’s hot pepper sauce, and his beloved New Jersey-style bacon-egg-cheeses with salt, pepper, and ketchup server as reference points and ingredients.
Even within Indian cuisine itself, Dave says, samosas don’t get enough shine. “It's always an afterthought or it's always just a side,” he says. “That's why I wanted to offer them as my main thing at the Samosa Shop.” And he’s just getting started: Samosa Shop’s signature samosa—with a sweet-savory-tart filling containing apricots, coconut milk, lime juice, and the aforementioned masala—now ships nationally, and he’s expanded with a line of simmer sauces and bottled hot sauces that are now available at his Denver pop-ups.
Ahead, learn about how Dave channeled his cheffy training into samosas all his own, how he’s learned to delegate, and his future plans for the business.
“Growing up in New Jersey, we had so many Indian stores in our area. When I close my eyes, I specifically remember the greasy, brown, small bag that my mom and my ammachi, my grandma, would bring home. They would bring home three samosas: one for me, one for my sister, and one for my brother. They were just so crunchy, so flaky.
I remember going to the Culinary Institute of America, and taking the Indian class and making samosas there. We all had two dishes that we were responsible for. And I remember learning how to fold it from one of my teachers.
The second time that I officially made a samosa, I was working at this restaurant called Biju's Little Curry Shop. That was here in Denver, probably around 2013 or 2014. The owner was just like me, a south Indian guy. He used to cook for Lance Armstrong and the cycling community. He started a little curry shop, and we were making samosas there at the time. I was just a line cook, but then ended up becoming the culinary director there after a couple years.”
“I left Biju's in probably 2017 or 2018. I kind of went on my own journey as a chef and joined a fast casual hospitality group that was doing hamburgers and hot chicken and pizza and barbecue. COVID hit, and I ended up losing my job. And from there I went into this fight or flight mode of, what can I make and what is going to get me to connect to people, but also connect to myself?
I turned back to what I think the people need to have, which is an easy snack item that they can walk around with. And so I felt that the samosa could be my thing. In my past, I’ve had versions that are a bit boring, I guess I could say, with onion, potato, salt, a little cumin, and that’s really it. As a chef, I wanted to take my knowledge of sweet, salty, and bitter flavor profiles and put it all into one samosa.
I reached out to Red Wagon Farms in Boulder, to use their potatoes. From there, I knew I wanted to use my mom's masala mix—the mixture that I grew up eating in all the chicken curries and all the dishes my mom or my ammachi would make growing up. An old chef I used to work with used raisins, and from there I developed the idea of adding dried fruit like currants and apricots.”
“My dad's uncle is from St. Vincent, and my mom's from southern India. So I grew up mixed in a way, where I'd have West Indian food and Indian food together. Basically every West Indian family has their own pepper sauce, with habaneros or Scotch bonnet peppers or pineapple peppers that they grow. My aunts and uncles, they have this yellow pepper sauce that they make. I decided to take that and make it my hot sauce. It’s vinegary, acidic, bright, salty, sweet, all of those things all in one pepper sauce. And the color’s beautiful. I've seen people drink this hot sauce.”
“A few months into it, I was like, ‘Holy shit. I cannot fold all of these samosas by myself. I'm getting tired. I need help.’ Making hundreds of samosas by hand, everything done perfectly, how much work does it take to actually get it done? It was me and three of my friends folding samosas on a six foot plastic table in my house. You can’t grow doing that, with only a fridge and a freezer as storage space.
When I first started, I knew the easiest way to do it was to find a specific egg roll wrapper that no one else has and wrap the samosas with a fold that I knew how to do, that I could teach all of my friends. I loved the shape—I still do. A lot of my friends say, ‘Yo, you should go back to your old ones and fold them all again.’ And I'm like, ‘Do you understand how much work that is? Do you know how much filling I had in those?’ Three ounces of filling per samosa. They were baseball-sized, thick and big, and I’d have problems with cooking them consistently.
I’ve had to figure out how it’s going to be for the end consumer, but also what I’m going to be happy with. For me now, that’s a thin, crispy samosa with a great filling that is evenly distributed, with closer to 2.5 ounces of filling—I don’t like tiny samosas. I now have my own co-packing group that creates my samosas for me every week. I'm the one that creates the mix. I'm the one that still tastes it. I'm the one that sweats and still peels every single one of those potatoes, but I'm not the one that's actually folding them.
It's still handmade. It's still done with love. It's still folded by hand. And I have to figure out a way to systemize it, to make it a little bit easier, but then it turns into a factory, right? And for me, I've always felt like that is where the love is lost.
Even today, I have lines waiting for two hours sometimes for samosas, but in the beginning, my idea of a line was, I want to make as much as I can, so I'm going to fulfill demand. I'm going to do more than 150. I'm going to do 200. I'm going to make 300, 400. And now, it's turned into 2,000 every week. That's my max that I've hit, until I either get my own location or figure out staffing, just because it's a lot.”
“The original is my number one seller, and it's the most traditional Indian one that I do. In the beginning, I did do a bunch of Indian fillings: I did butter chicken, I did saag paneer, I've done chicken korma, I've done Kerala beef. But I've realized altogether, the most traditional samosa that people recognize is that potato-pea or that potato-onion flavor.
The other flavors are where I get to be the Indian-American kid that I am, the kid that's growing up in America trying to show people that Indian food can be cool. And that's where I come up with my Philly cheese steak samosa, my chicken pot pie, and my bacon, egg, and cheese.
When I first started, everyone said, ‘What is this samosa?’ I used to say, ‘A glorified and a better hot pocket.’ That is how I had to explain to people what an actual samosa is, and to have people really get that they would like it and then be like, ‘Oh my gosh, all these chutneys are so good.’ And they're saying ‘chutney’ all of a sudden, and these words that are Indian that wouldn't be said unless they had this samosa.
And then I’m getting these young kids that are young that are getting six, seven, eight bacon, egg, and cheese samosas for breakfast at the farmer’s market, and that takes me back to getting a bacon, egg, and cheese with pork roll and salt, pepper, and ketchup in New Jersey. Kids love dumplings, kids love fried egg rolls, kids love pizza pockets and hot pockets. Why can't they love a samosa?”
Above the Fold was created by Leah Mennies. Logo + design elements by Claudia Mak.
The above interview was condensed and edited. Interview subjects are paid an honorarium for taking the time to share their knowledge and experience.
Luv your design elements!