Book House

‘Gulab Jamun’: Everybody’s celebration sweetmeat

  • The book “The Sweet Kitchen: Tales and Recipes of India’s Favourite Desserts” by Rajyasree Sen delves into the stories behind some of the iconic Indian sweet dishes and asks questions about the origins of others.


  • Among the tales she tells are the following—Is sandesh only made in Bengal? Is the gulab jamun strictly Indian? Was the kaju barfi created through divine intervention? How did sweetshops support the independence movement? How did the Persians, Mughals, French, Portuguese, British, and others influence sweet dishes in different parts of the country? Why do most communities not use yoghurt in their desserts?—and more.


  • Weaving together stories, historical records, and recipes, the book takes a fascinating look at the desserts we have eaten for countless Diwali, Christmas, Eid, and Navroz celebrations through the centuries.


  • Read an excerpt from the book below.


One of my favourite memories from when I was a child of six or seven is attending my best friend’s birthday party where, alongside all the food at lunch, there used to sit a large glass bowl of the softest gulab jamuns imaginable, floating in warm sugar syrup. Every year, I’d take one gulab jamun—or was it two—and cut into it with a spoon, to reveal its soft spongy filling soaked in sugar, and marvel at the fact that my friend’s mother had made this from scratch. It had just the right amount of sweetness, was extremely soft to bite into, and always somewhat warm. To date, gulab jamuns remain my favourite Indian dessert.

These deep-fried balls made of milk powder, flour, butter, and milk are popular in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and almost the entire subcontinent. The gulab jamun was even named the national dessert of Pakistan in 2019.

The gulab jamun is common, but exquisite, in the sense that you will find it on menus across India. I’ve even had gulab jamun served to me in Indian restaurants and at five-star hotel buffets across the world. The name, loosely translated, means rose-fruit, where ‘gulab’ refers to rose and ‘jamun’ refers to the slightly tart java plum which is found all over the subcontinent and which the sweet resembles in shape and colour. The ‘gulab’ could also be a nod to the sugar syrup which the gulab jamun is served in, which is often scented with rose water.

The addition of rose water hints at one possible origin of the gulab jamun. While there is no documented proof for this, many food historians claim that the gulab jamun could have been introduced by Central Asian invaders to the subcontinent. Others claim that the dessert was an accidental creation by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s chef, but I haven’t discovered any credible source for this claim. What I have discovered is that the dessert is quite similar to the Arabic sweet luqmat-al-qadi, which was introduced to India by the Mughal emperors.

The difference between the two sweets is that luqmat-alqadi is less brown in colour and often soaked in honey as opposed to sugar syrup. The luqmat dates back to the thirteenth-century Abbasid caliphate, and is mentioned in several accounts of food at the time, including Kitab al-Tabikh where it is called luqam al-qadhi. The historian Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi mentions the sweet as early as the thirteenth century. A survey of antiquity also shows this to be one of the oldest recorded desserts in the world where, according to Greek poet Callimachus, these deep-fried balls were soaked in honey and served to the winners of the Olympic Games as ‘honey tokens’.

It is interesting to note that the preparation of the luqmat is the same as that of the gulab jamun. A ball of dough is fried in oil and then dipped in flavoured syrup which—depending on the country we’re in—could be made from orange juice, rose water, honey, or even lemon juice. The Iranian bamiyeh and the Turkish tulumba, both of which are similar to the gulab jamun, are made from unleavened dough that is fried and dipped in sugar syrup. Unlike the gulab jamun, the bamiyeh is eaten cold. The lokma, which can be found in Turkey, is very similar to the gulab jamun as we know it in India, and is served with coffee and coated with chocolate sauce or honey or sesame or grated walnuts. It’s possible that Mughal cooks were inspired by the Persian and Turkic desserts, and added rose water to make this indulgent dessert cooling in South Asia’s hot weather. Flavours such as khus and rose, which are considered to be cooling, have also entered India thanks to Turkish and Persian influences.

While some recipes use yoghurt in the dough, others use baking powder or milk powder, and some Pakistani recipes I came across even use egg. Saffron and cardamom are often used to make the sweet notes a little more complex. The appearance of the sweet varies from country to country and state to state within India. In his 1994 book, Indian Food: A Historical Companion, the food historian K.T. Achaya describes gulab jamun as, ‘Balls of chenna or khoya or paneer, kneaded using maida and then deep-fried till they become dark brown on the surface, and then gently boiled in a medium-thick sugar syrup, sometimes flavoured with rose essence.’ Some states make round dough balls, others make a doughnut-shaped version and in Bengal and North India, we even have oval-shaped gulab jamuns stuffed with a cardamom or clove.

After learning how the gulab jamun is prepared, I was even more impressed by the fact that my friend’s mother was cooking it at home. It’s a tedious process. First, khoya is made by constantly stirring milk over a low flame till it becomes solid. This milk solid is mixed with flour and kneaded into a dough, which is shaped into small balls and deep-fried. These fried balls are then dipped in sugar syrup which is usually flavoured with cardamom, rose water, or strands of saffron. The deep brownish-red colour of the gulab jamun is from the solid milk and sugar in the mixture, which caramelizes to give it this hue.

Excerpted with permission from The Sweet Kitchen: Tales and Recipes of India’s Favourite Desserts, Rajyasree Sen, Aleph Book Company. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

 

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