Jalebi, a hyperlocal Indian dessert that has been intricate with all layers of its social fabric. Jalebis can be found from the road side thatched food corners in country side to the centrally air conditioned sweets shop chains of metropolitan cities. A famous North Indian proverb is used in Urdu & Hindi languages “Jalebi ki tarah seedha” that means “straight like a Jalebi”. Its used as a satirical remark for someone comparing his behavior with the twisted shape of a popular sweetmeat.
From 18th Century Faez Dehalvi to Nazir Akbarabadi, this twisted hyper local sweetmeat finds place in the Urdu couplets of these poets. The chefs filling the heated oil pans with a spiral shapes by moving a muslin white cloth filled with a batter of sweetmeat is common sight at every next door sweet shop in India streets. The spiral shapes were deeply fried till it became golden brown in color & then dipped in a sugar syrup. The crunchy hot Jalebis with yogurt is a common breakfast serving in North Indian towns. Let explore the interesting narratives of its historical origin. How this next door sweetmeat became the part of our culinary culture down the centuries. The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson quoted one citation in following words: “According to Hobson- Johnson, the word Jalebi is apparently corruption of Arabic Zalabiya or Persian Zalibiya. It seems both the word & food must have entered India in Mediveal ages. A Jain work of 1450 CE by Jiansura has a reference of a feast that includes the jalebi“. In Iran, the Jalebi is known as Zellabiya & its a commonly seen dessert during the special occasions & feast. During the month of fasting (Ramzan), the sweet savory is in the top list of charity foods for the needy. In middle eastern countries many variants of Zalabiya existed from Egypt to Levantine countries. The medieval Arabic master work compiled during Abbasid era, One Thousand and one nights also cited sweet savory connecting it with the romantic poetic verses. The English translation of its Arabic verses by Forough Hekmat:
“Of Sweet Zolobiya chain I hung a necklace around her neck
From its delicious loops, I made a rings around her ears“
One such variant that is popular is Egypt as Zalabya is Luqmat al-Qadi that literally means Morsel of Judges. Its a sugar syrup soaked balls of simple leaved yeast dough fried in the oil pan. The recipe of Persian Zolobiya cited by Forough Hekmat in his culinary account ” The Art of Persian Cooking” stand almost closer to its congener Jalebi of Indian subcontinent. The 10th century culinary treatise of Abbasid era, Kitab al–Tabikh where more than ninety recipes of sweets has been cited has also mentioned these fritters as Zulaabiyyah.
It seems that the medieval Muslim armies from Central Asia brought their version of Zolobiya that evolved down the centuries as candy like fried tangles of dough what is now known as Jalebi in India & Pakistan (The donut: History, Recipe & lore from Boston & Berlin by Michael Krondl). Dileep Padgonkar (2010) write-up mentioned of 16th century Sanskrit culinary account Gunyagunabodhini where recipe of Jalebis has been explained. From Afghanistan to Bangladesh, the context & names of Jalebis imbibed multiple regional influences but still down the centuries, it holds its position as one of the most common sweetmeat of South Asia.
- Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson, Oxford University Press, 3rd ed. (2014).
- The art of Persian cooking, Forough Hekmat, Hippocrine books (1998).
- Journey of Jalebi, Dileep Padgaonkar, (2010), retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Journey-of-the-jalebi/articleshow/5071902.cms
- The donut: History, Recipe & lore from Boston & Berlin by Michael Krondl, Chicago review press (2014).