Samosas are ubiquitous in Punjabi cuisine: hearty golden cones of fried dough filled with ginger, turmeric, cumin and garam masala–spiced vegetables inside. The popular north Indian street food is an unlikely addition to the Park Slope farmers’ market.
“I still get asked what samosas are,” admits Mini Dhingra, founder of Samosa Shack, who has become a familiar face alongside upstate farmers selling produce.
For every eater in New York unfamiliar with samosas, Dhingra has a family member in Kolkata surprised at the business she built selling them. “Everybody is in disbelief because I have no food background,” Dhingra laughs. “My sister was always the one in the kitchen with my mom. I was the tomboy with short hair playing outside.”
Dhingra moved from Kolkata to Buffalo in 1989 to earn her MBA. Food was not part of the plan. In 2013, she taught herself to make samosas on a whim, blending the flavors she remembered from her mother’s kitchen with techniques she learned from YouTube videos. “I had never even written down a recipe, but all my friends were telling me, ‘You gotta sell these!’” Dhingra recalls with amusement.
Dissatisfied with her work as a pharmaceutical consultant and wanting to spend more time with her daughter, Anya, Dhingra decided to change careers. Within a few months, she had a business name and a booth at a Westchester farmers’ market where she sold her first batch of 60 samosas. Now Dhingra and her small kitchen staff prepare 1,600 to 3,300 samosas each week to sell at farmers’ markets, in cafés, and at local food events. It’s laborious work that Dhingra enjoys, despite the late nights and long weekends. “Even when I’m tired and cranky, I’m still having fun.”
As a samosawala, Dhingra’s approach is out in left-field, where she adapts the Indian staples she loves to suit whatever seasonal ingredients from local farmers that catch her eye. A lifelong vegetarian, Dhingra makes good use of the bounty at her disposal with weekly rotating specials like curried collard greens and spiced rhubarb dal alongside standards like kale chana masala, sweet potato spinach and tofu tikka masala. All of her samosas are vegan, except for a dairy paneer, granting Dhingra entrance into the vegan food community where she has been received with what she says “feels like a tight hug.”
Nearly as savory as the samosas is her homemade bhel puri, a crunchy gluten-free salad composed of turmeric-puffed rice, chickpea crisps, roasted peanuts, tamarind chutney, flecks of red onions and fresh cilantro, plus Dhingra’s unexpected additions like summer tomatillos and radish sprouts, autumn cranberries and roasted winter squash. Some of Dhingra’s ideas elicit surprise from her mother in Kolkata. “We did a tandoori carrot samosa and had all these carrot tops,” says Dhingra. “I didn’t want to throw them out, so I made carrot top chutney. When I told my mom, she was like, ‘What? You’re making chutney out of that?!’”
Despite moments of astonishment, her mother is Samosa Shack’s biggest fan and the person Dhingra credits for her curious palate, whose experimental cooking exposed young Dhingra to dishes like Burmese khow suey and Hungarian vegetarian goulash. “I travelled the world through my mother’s food,” she says with pride. “She’s the reason I cook.”
Born in Pakistan, Dhingra’s parents both moved to India when they were young; her mother as a child, and her father (now-deceased) as a 15-year-old refugee. “He told us stories about getting kicked out in the middle of the night and riding on top of the train because there was no room in the train car,” Dhingra recalls. It was her father, a lifelong entrepreneur, who taught her by example of “what it takes to handle the ups and downs of a business,” she says.
Samosa Shack stands out wherever it pops up from the Vegan Street Fair in Midtown and Asbury Park’s Vegfest in New Jersey to Crown Heights’ Brown Privilege Comedy show, and as the third summer of business winds down, Dhingra seems equally content and amazed at its steady growth. “Whenever Anya gets nervous, I remind her of that first farmers’ market,” she says with a grin. “I tell her, do you remember how scared I was, wondering if people were going to laugh at me, and then what happened? We sold out in two hours.”
For updates on markets and events where Samosa Shack can be found, follow them: @samosashackny.