Pick up your spoon. Is it lying next to you? Sitting quietly in your afternoon coffee cup? Or is it still, by chance, tucked in a drawer waiting for a good meal? If so, you must go now and retrieve it! You are about to succumb to intoxication, the perfect balance between taste and smell. You are having a Gulab Jamun.
Now dip the spoon ever so gently into that spongy, tawny-colored globe you hold in the cup in front of you. The treat, still warm, offers a fragrance of cardamom and roses. The donut is soft and forgiving, just as a good sweet should be. Its golden elixir spills from the center and carries an aroma reminiscent of royalty: men and women who once sipped tea and echoed poetry within some of the world’s most resplendent gardens. Now take a bite. Gulab Jamun. The name itself rolls through your tongue — sticky and sweet, full and flirty.
What, you ask, is Gulab Jamun? It’s heaven in your mouth! History in your spoon! Happiness at the sweet-seeking tip of your tongue! It is, in all due haste, the crowning achievement of Indian sweet-making culture. Like fashion in France, Indian sweets are taken to art form; of these, Gulab Jamun is the most well-loved. The name itself can be translated to the name “rose berry.” The treat’s orb-like shape and color resembles the well-known purplish “Jamun” berry in India, and rosewater is the signature ingredient that flavors it. Ironically enough, the Jamun fruit is believed to be a “diabetes fighter.” Too many Gulab Jamuns, on the other hand, will likely give you a heart attack.
Although no real comparison exists in the American repertoire of sweets, the Gulab Jamun itself looks like a donut hole, although lighter and more airy than cake donuts you might pick up at Tim Horton’s. It is composed mostly of milk that has been boiled down to a solid state (called Khoya in Hindi), mixed with flour and then deep fried to a deep, gorgeous, crimson brown color. After it is fried, it is soaked in sugar syrup flavored with the rosewater and saffron or cardamom. Eat it alone, warm, or with a dish of vanilla ice cream. Gulab Jamun is by turns sweet, spongy, gooey, warm, and aromatic, and it satisfies many a dessert craving. Heart attack be damned.
Gulab Jamun Is a Bite-Sized Portion of Indian History
Deep within Indian history, the Mughals made a grand entrance. They came adorned in the finest, most colorful silks. They kept peacocks and tigers as pets. And they lounged on marbled and bejeweled thrones as their coterie of Khansamas, or cooks, prepared time-consuming, delectable meals. One of the many indulgences laid upon these luxurious laps was Gulab Jamun. The sweet was introduced to the Indian Subcontinent in the Mughal Empire, and its origins are in Persia, where its counterpart — Luqmat Al Qadi – was made with honey. The Mughals, a Muslim dynasty, began their rule in the Indian subcontinent in 1526 when Babur expanded into northern India and won the first battle at Panipat. Babur was the first of a succession of Mughal leaders who consolidated power and became the force that united the erstwhile collection of independent Hindu kingdoms. Mughal rule did not end until the mid-nineteenth century, when it was supplanted by the British raj.
The Mughal period brought to the Indian subcontinent a flowering of art, culture and government. The period produced the first blending of Indian, Iranian and Central Asian traditions which led to greater trade, new languages, and the development of crafts in architecture, gardening and cooking.
When Persian food first arrived in India, the local khansamas adapted the cuisine for the Nawabs, Muslim Nobles in the north. They combined the familiar tastes of garlic, onions, nuts and fruits with local Hindu culinary traditions. Soon this food, including Gulab Jamun, was introduced at the Mughal courts in Delhi. Khansamas boiled fresh milk for hours before it reduced to the solid form used to shape the luscious white balls. Court slaves meticulously collected thousands of rose petals, then soaked them to extract the perfumed essence called rosewater. And although packaged rosewater rather than fresh rose petals is generally used today, Delhi sweet makers, or moiras, still make some of the best Gulab Jamun in India.
The Hinduization of Gulab Jamun
The streets of India come alive during Hindu celebrations in India. Women wrap themselves in their most crisp and colorful saris and men carefully pull on newly pressed kurtas. At Diwali, Pongal, Holi and Durga Puja, Gulab Jamun has become a centerpiece of holiday festivities. Tradition requires revelers to fill the streets and bring gifts of sweets to the homes of friends and relatives. Gulab Jamun is the chosen favorite.
At weddings, too, Gulab Jamun, makes a presentation. An auspicious wedding celebration is one that offers an almost unlimited supply of Gulab Jamuns for its guests. Amid the crowds that come to bring glad tidings and to eat, you can always find a collection of restless young boys who keep guard at the dessert table. They stuff the sweet fried balls, one after the other, into their mouths in a contest to see who can inhale the most. If you have eaten a Gulab Jamun, you might be surprised to learn that these hungry wedding goers can pack 30 or more into their growing stomachs!
Gulab Jamun by Any Other Name. . .
Like everything else introduced to India, from religion to the ubiquitous chili pepper, Gulab Jamun has been adapted to suit local tastes and, some say, taken to even greater levels. Kala-jams are coated with sugar before frying, which gives these jamuns their blackish color. South Indians sometimes stuff their Gulab Jamuns with coconut, and an even more recent concoction (though hotly debated by purists) is the sweet potato Gulab Jamun. The majority of Indians are mad about sweets and, if you show a little curiosity during your visit, you can meet some true connoisseurs of the art. Bengalis in particular are known to be the best sweet makers in the country. If you want to make sweets a part of your culinary visit to India, Kolkata (or Cal, as some still call it) is the place to be.
On any given morning or evening millions of Kolkatans swarm the thousands of sweet shops that rule over the Bengali business culture. Some of these shops, like K.C. Das, have been testing and improving their sweets since the early nineteenth century, a period of time when Calcutta witnessed its own renaissance of art and culture. Back then, Calcuttans moved by way of horse-drawn carriages and gas lamps. And then, as now, the culture of sweets was entrenched. There are so many sweet shops in Kolkata that hardly anyone makes their own at home. The sweet house has been as much a part of a neighborhood community as its tea shops. Kolkata’s world-renowned artists, philosophers and revolutionaries once communed and argued around tables set up at favorite mishti joint. Today, throngs of customers inch through the crowds at any mishtir dokan, picking out a healthy assortment to take back to their homes. And a handful of regulars still sit at the few small tables set aside for savoring the pride of Kolkata. As they chat and watch the salivating multitudes, they relish in a confection that melts on their tongues and leaves a sweet, milky aftertaste.
Although you will find Gulab Jamun at the best confectionaries in Kolkata, the city is praised for its unique version of Gulab Jamun, which many contend is the only way it should be made. On the outside, Pantua looks identical to North Indian Gulab Jamun, but its secret lies in its ingredients. Although Gulab Jamun is made of a blend of flour and khoya, the Bengali preparation replaces the flour with a dessert cheese called chhena. The balls are similar in consistency to roshogollas, another Bengali specialty, but are fried and then soaked in rosewater syrup.
Nobin Das has been credited with the invention of the roshogolla sweet and, by turns, the Pantua. His shop still stands, now under the name of his son, K.C. Das. In Kolkata there are so many marvelous sweet shops to choose from that I recommend a fun-filled day of “sweet-hopping.”
A Food Fit for Royals
Another long-standing sweet shop in Kolkata, Bhim Chandra Nag, in Bhowbazar, has its own claim to Pantua fame. In 1856, Bhim Nag re-imagined Pantua in honor of the wife of the then Governor General of India – Lady Charlotte Canning. The preparation was an order handed down from Lord Canning himself, on the eve of Lady Canning’s birthday. The result was an oblong shaped sweet very much like Pantua but, according to Bhim Nag’s descendents, entirely different at the same time. Although Lady Canning lived only another five years in Calcutta, succumbing to Malaria in 1861, her name lives on in the indulgent concoction now known as Ledikeni.
Pantua that is not deep fried is known as roshogolla, and this sweet has, according to some, perhaps the oldest origins in India. Roshogolla, it is believed, dates back at least 600 years, to the coastal town of Puri in Orissa. There it has been for centuries the traditional offering to the goddess Lakshmi at the famous temple Jagannath, one of the four most sacred Hindu pilgrimage places in India. Lakshmi is the consort of the god Jagannath and herself the goddess of wealth, prosperity, light, wisdom, fortune, fertility, generosity and courage. Every year, a popular festival of chariots brings Jagannath and other deities out of the temple for a procession. Worshipers also bring roshogollas, swimming in a lush bath of cardamom and rosewater syrup, to the goddess Lakshmi. They believe the sweets will appease Lakshmi’ s wrath after being abandoned by her consort during the procession. The more roshogollas brought to Lakshmi, the greater the visitors’ hope that this goddess may bestow some of her virtues upon them. If you are primed to seek and taste the origins of Indian sweets yourself, you might try Kakatua Sweet shop in Puri, or one of the roadside stalls in Pahala, just outside Orissa’s capital Bhubaneswar.
Where or Where Does a Lover of Sweets Go?
This article would not be complete without offering some of the best places to find Gulab Jamun in India. So without further ado:
In New Delhi, try Bikanervala, Aggarwal, Haldiram’s or Nathu.
For the best Indian sweets, particularly Gulab Jamun, Mumbaians frequent Bhagatram Sweets, Jhama Sweets, Sweet Bengal, the Bombay Sweet House and Kailash Parbat
Bangalore’s favorite sweet shops include Sri Venkateshwara Sweetmeat Stall, Anand Sweets, and Mishti.
And in addition to those mentioned above, some of the shops Kolkatans rave about include Sandhya Sweets, Chhappan Bhog, Banchharam, and Chittaranjan Mistanna Bhandar.
Keep in mind that, as Indians consider sweet-making a high art, you are bound to meet those who disagree with this list. The only legitimate response is to follow their lead. Let them pull you through some of the country’s narrow, teeming, tangled streets. You’ll fight past rickshaw wallahs, potholes in the road and a haze of people buying, selling, playing, and eating. Soon enough you will arrive at a bustling shop you’ve never heard of. Try the Gulab Jamun, the ladoo, the sondesh, or the mishti doi. The experience is the reward.