Shavuot, a holiday where dairy meals are traditionally served at Jewish homes throughout the world, commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It falls 50 days after the planting of wheat on the second day of Passover; with crops, as well as wild greens and grass, appearing throughout March, April, and May, more food was available for goats and sheep to eat in the hot, dry Middle East by the time Shavuot came around. If the animals had more to eat, they produced more milk and thus, this became the holiday of cheese, cheesecakes, and cheese-filled pastries.
The custom spread throughout the world: In Russia, there are cheese blintzes; in Turkey, cheese burek; in the United States, cheesecakes; and in countries like Iraq and Syria, sambusak. Coming from the words sanbosag and sanbusa in Persian, the word itself means triangular, like a pocket pastry. Referred to as sanbusak, sanbusaz, or sanbusaj in Arabic cookbooks from the 10th to the 13th centuries, these savory pastries go way back in the Iraqi Jewish communities that eventually spread to Syria and India.
I like to make these pastries very small, serving some and freezing the others for unexpected guests. If you want, you can fill the pockets with dates or vegetables and cheese. The dough is very forgiving and sambusak, served warm and oozing with cheese, tastes absolutely delicious as a savory treat at Shavuot.
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.