Almost half a century ago, when a samosa shop opened up in the grounds of the University of Karachi (KU), students could not have guessed that this shop would become a significant part of their nostalgia for their alma mater in the years to come.
For those studying at KU today, it is a daily ritual to stop at the samosa shop between classes, while there are almuni who often make a special trip to the university just to enjoy its savoury delights.
Set up by a tram conductor in 1971, Qasim Samosa Shop is a landmark in the university’s popular food street called Prem Gali. Currently, the samosa shop is run by Qasim’s grandson Muhammad Saleem Sheikh.
“I was in Grade 4 or 5 when I first visited the shop which was opened by my maternal grandfather known as Qasim bhai,” says Sheikh, as he gets the oil ready for frying a batch of the stuffed triangles.
The bright blue canteen is surrounded by students. As I speak to Sheikh, two teenage boys eagerly eye the frying delicacies, waiting to get their hands on the samosas. They discuss if they want chaat masala (spice powder mix) or not. “Uncle, give us our samosas in two separate bags – one with extra chaat masala, the other without any,” says one of them.
The two boys grab their samosas and immediately start to munch away, while those in queue awaiting their turn look on.
Interestingly enough, apart from degrees and education, the University of Karachi is also known for its savoury delights
Recalling how the shop was when he was a child, Sheikh says, “If I remember correctly, there were two canteens here at that time. One was this samosa shop, and another was the shop right there,” he points to a canteen opposite his, which is famous for its gol gappay and chaat.
“I remember I would buy a 10-litre can of oil for 70 rupees and, up until around 1985, the samosa was sold for 25 paisas,” he recalls. “Now I get a 15-litre can for 2,800 rupees so the one-bite samosa costs four rupees each.” Readers who have been old customers of Qasim’s samosas will recall that the price of one samosa was just three rupees until 2014.
Sheikh speaks of his forefathers who hailed from Gujarat in India. And that is where the magic recipe of the stuffed triangle originated from and travelled to Pakistan with his grandfather. “The concept of the one-bite samosa comes from Gujarat and it is called a Gujarati samosa,” he says. As for the other popular samosas, those that are bigger in size, are called Punjabi samosas, Sheikh explains.
The difference, he explains, is that, “In Punjabi samosas, the potato is roughly crushed, whereas in the Gujarati version it is in a mashed form.” Mostly the condiment served with Punjabi samosas is chutney. However, Qasim’s samosa shop does not serve chutney. Instead, a special chaat masala (spicy powder) is sprinkled over the savoury snack to add the right tanginess.
Sheikh has been running the show for the past nine years. “I worked in the banking sector previously. Even though the pay was good, I decided to leave the bank for the samosa shop,” Sheikh shares how he ended up at the shop.
“Our chaat masala is unique. It is prepared with a special recipe,” he says. “A few days back, the shop ran short on the chaat masala, but my customers wouldn’t stop demanding it,” Sheikh shares.
When the shop set up, Qasim used to prepare the samosa crusts but later his wife took over the task. Currently, Sheikh gets the samosa patti prepared by his mother at home but the filling is done at the shop.
Talking about the magic behind the taste of this delicacy, Sheikh says “It is probably the honesty and sincerity with the way we prepare these that gets the customers hooked despite the profit margin being low for us now.”
On an average, Sheikh manages to sell about 3,000-4,000 samosas a day, with the peak season being Ramazan. “A week before Ramazan the sale increases as people tend to stock samosas for iftar even though I tell them the shop will be open until the 20th of Ramazan.”
Sheikh enjoys a mix of both new and old customers. “We get new clients all the time and the old ones come from all around the world, he says. “Recently, I had former students of KU who were visiting from Chile. They especially visited just for the samosas. I regularly get KU alumni from the US and Australia.”
Forty nine years on, and with a shift in generational gears at the canteen, what has stayed constant at the Qasim Samosa Shop is the quality of food. According to Sheikh, “The quality and the taste is the same as it was in the past because the same recipe is being followed.”
Sheikh has been running the show for the past nine years. “I worked in the banking sector previously. Even though the pay was good, I decided to leave the bank for the samosa shop,” he says.
Does he have any plans of branching out? “I handle the business single-handedly. In any business, if you do not involve yourself, you will not get profits. My brother opened a shop at Iqra University under his own name but soon discontinued.”
In Prem Gali, Qasim’s samosas are a go-to spot for students, staff, faculty and residents alike. Many grab a bite before heading home, while others munch on them while taking a break from studies. The day I speak to Sheikh coincides with KU’s Orientation 2020. Many newly enrolled students can be seen asking for the way to the canteen. “They will find my canteen sooner or later,” he says.
The two boys who bought samosas earlier return to get more, as two more customers appear and place their order. It’s always a busy day at the samosa shop.
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, March 22nd, 2020