A sweet tale of an exotic dessert

LIVING IN THE KITCHEN

A sweet tale of an exotic dessert

Dhanvanti Keshavrao takes you on a delicious journey of the popular desi sweet, jalebi, and its different avatars

Like an artist at work, the jalebi maker makes three circles, creating figures of eight and loops them over each other. He holds a muslin pouch filled with flour batter in his hand, and pours out designs into a huge kadai brimming with oil. Frying, turning once, until crisp and golden on both sides, he lifts out these spirals and lets the oil drain for a few seconds, then drops the hot crispy orange coils into a pot of sugary syrup. These coils of crispy fried batter are popularly known as jalebis. Watching a jalebi maker frying jalebis itself is a joy.

A traditionally festive sweet, jalebi, is a popular part of the mithai family available at every halwai shop. Jalebis vary in thickness, size, colour and weight. Once you take a bite, you will neither know nor care where it came from or where it disappeared, for a jalebi is truly a melt-in-the-mouth desi sweet.

The name itself is a corruption of the zalabiya (Arab) or zoolabiya (Persian) and versions of it are found all over the Middle East. In Afghanistan, jalebis are traditionally served with fish – yes, you read right – in the winter. In Iran, it is a festive dish, and also served to the poor during Ramadan. What’s more, it finds mention in the famous Tales of Thousand And One Nights! Quite an exotic sweet, isn’t it?

The origins of jalebi have been traced back to ancient India, where it was called Kundalika or Jal-vallika. It is said that this name was given because the sweet was full of watery syrup. Jal-vallika then became Jalebi in later dialects, sometime during the period of Muslim rule, by means of trade and cultural exchanges with the Indian subcontinent. And soon enough, Jalebi became Zalebi as ‘J’ sound was non-existant in middle-eastern languages and ‘Z’ was the closest equivalent sound.

There are many varieties of Jalebis right within India, the most notable being the Imarti sweet of North India and the Jangiri of South India, and Angoor Aana of Bengal. The Jangri and Imarti are not the same as Jalebi, even though they look alike. The main difference between these is that the popular Jalebi is made out of maida (refined flour), while the other three are made out of  urad dal paste. Urad dal is soaked in water for few hours, and stone-ground into a fine batter. The batter is poured into ghee, though other oils are sometimes used. Another variant is the chhena jalebi of Bengal called Omrimti made with chhena/paneer.

Imarti was considered one of the items of Raj Bhog (Royal Food Menu). Imartis are usually drier than the Jalebis and the shape is also different, which is often a small ring in the middle and around which the pattern is made geometrically. Then you have keshar jalebis of Benares with plenty of saffron. In North India it is often consumed with rabri (condensed milk). In South India, this sweet is served after a festive meal, and is very popular at weddings and festivals in Pakistan. Jaunpur, in Uttar Pradesh, is quite famous for its imarti.

On 1 October, 2009, a jalebi that was prepared in Shillong made its way into the Limca Book of records, during the Shillong Autumn festival. This huge jalebi, made by the city’s popular eatery, Delhi Mistan Bhandar, measured 75 inches in diameter and weighed 15kg! No less than six cooks and fourteen helpers were involved in making it, using 3kg of flour, 60 kg of ghee, and 30 litres of sugar syrup!

Our metros have their own favourite shops for jalebi. In Mumbai, Pancharatna Jalebi near Opera house, and N Lookmanji's Mithaiwala Pvt Ltd specialise in large festival-orders and are a big hit. It is where you'll find a special large, juicy, reddish Jalebi variant (similar to the Imarti, a favourite treat of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir). In Kolkata, it is said to be Sharma Tea house on Elgin Road & Harish Mukherjee Road crossing). In Chennai, you have the Grant Snacks of Adyar, and the Shri Krishna Sweets.

In Delhi, there are quite a number of  famous jalebi shops, but the Jalebi Wala in Chandni Chowk's Dariba Nukkad is the most famous. The unique taste lingers hours after you have tasted them. Home made ghee has that aroma that tickles the nostrils gently.

The taste of these jalebis is same for the last 80 years since Nemi Chand Jain opened this shop," claims the present management team of the famous sweet shop.

According to them “The recipe has been exclusively made and kept a secret with other members of the family. The senior most member has the right to own it.”

The unique thing is that they cook these tantalising jalebis on coal fire and don't use gas burners. Moreover, they use khand, a pure form of sugar, instead of ordinary sugar syrup which gives the jalebis an inimitable taste. For desi ghee, they have their own buffaloes. But the icing on the cake, or should we say the syrup on the jalebi, is that every jalebi here weighs a 100g! No wonder, people start queuing up right from 10AM, though the shutters open an hour later.

Are you salivating just reading this? Why not try and learn the art of making jalebis at home? Here are some tips that will help you make the best jalebis possible:

*  Use grinder or a food processor which will give you a fluffy batter.

* The sugar syrup must neither be too thin nor too thick.

*  Oil should always be heated on low flame or low-medium flame, other wise, the jalebis will blow to a bigger size and become brittle or soggy.

*Use only flat bottomed pan.

* Pure ghee gives the best taste to jalebis.

* Jalebis should be light enough to absorb the syrup.

* Immerse jalebi in sugar syrup for a day, if you feel that the it has not absorbed enough.

Else, you could just dunk the jalebis twice in the hot syrup - once while preparing, and once just before serving. 

* Soak leftover jalebis overnight in milk, and make a wholesome dish of doodh jalebi, which not only tastes great but is extremely nutritious.

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