When I wonder about my earliest memories of the jalebi, two come to mind. One is Dhara cooking oil’s delightfully well-made ad film, about a young boy running away from home, only to be enticed back with the promise of hot jalebis. Nineties’ kids — and their parents — will recognise the young boy’s (now a very grown up Parzan Dastur) greedy, wide-eyed exclaim “jalebi?!” even after two decades. The ad was poignant and heartwarming, but it also reaffirmed the country’s love for the humble sweet snack.
Gram flour is a common base for North Indian desserts and sweets. From being turned into halwas, to being used in ghewars and boondi laddoos, it is an inexpensive but delicious ingredient. The royal Mysore Pak from Tamil Nadu also celebrates the warm, nutty flavour of the gram flour. The jalebi and imarti are the informal, snackable candidates of the gram flour desi dessert family. While jalebis around the country are bright orange, crunchy, sticky with thick syrup, and smaller than a man’s palm, the Bengali Jilipi and the Odiya and Assamese Jilapi are mostly dark brown, as big as an adult human’s hand, have fatter and crunchier coils, but with soft, chewy insides that hold the syrup in, and ooze when bitten into. The more decorative imarti (or Omritti, as the East calls it) is chewier in texture, is more tightly packed, and is often scented with fragrances, and dressed with varq.
For Bengalis, Jilipi is a weekend snack, and commonly a Sunday breakfast item served either with Shingara (Samosa), Khasta Kachori, or Radhaballavi. As years rolled, Bengalis started realising that their obsession with indigestion has a lot to do with their unhealthy food choices and hence, colloquially, “Shingara-Jilipi” is often used to refer to junk, unhealthy food. Roadside stalls or sweet shops fry them only on weekend mornings — which is a common practice in many other states, including Maharashtra and Gujarat —and they sell out very quickly. My second memory of the Jilipi is returning from my Sunday morning art classes as a young boy, pillioning on my dad’s scooter, holding onto my art supplies and a gigantic drawing board with a freshly water-coloured sheet of paper was clipped, and making a pit stop at the sweet shop to pick up Jilipi, Shingara, and kachoris. I would always have one Jilipi right there at the shop. Back then, fried stuffs would be stored in sweet shops in bamboo baskets to drain any residual oil, and covered with a plate made of dried sal leaves stitched together with thin sticks. The shops would serve food in small bowls made of sal leaves too. They would ask “ekhaane khaaben na niye jaaben?” (will you have it here or take it home) while receiving most orders because, it was common for people to pop one or two sweets into their mouths at the shop itself, while packing a bunch for home. I would take my Jilipi outside and hold it up to the morning sun and watch it glow orange-red, filled with syrup and happiness.
The concept of deep frying dough and then soaking in syrup comes from traditional Arabic desserts like Zalabia and Luqmat al Qadi. This concept travelled around the world with the Arabs, Turks, and the Mughals and took various forms in different countries. While in India it became the Jalavallika and then, eventually, jalebi, it travelled to the West via Ethiopia and Morocco and became Funnel Cakes. The imarti hasn’t travelled much though, and has stayed put in the Indian subcontinent.
Bhopal and Indore introduced me to Poha-jalebi and Papdi-Jalebi — two more sweet and savoury pairings. Outside Bengal, hot jalebis are often married with cold Rabdis, and are a fine combination at that. The crunchy, straight-up sugary flavour of the jalebi makes it a great companion for snacks, and other creamy desserts. Gujaratis dip jalebis into Basundi while Doodh-Jalebi is a delightfully rustic winter dessert in UP. Down south, Karnataka makes unique green colour jalebis, called Avarebele, during winters from avarekai or Hyacinth beans. The country loves the jalebi.
The jalebi’s fancier cousins are made with mawa and cottage cheese. From the Bengali Chhanar Jilipi made with chhena (chhena dough is piped into coils, deep fried and dunked in syrup), to the north Indian and Rajasthani mawa and paneer varieties, there are various renditions. But my favourite comes from a small town called Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh. A Mughal hotspot (Mumtaz Mahal died here and the Taj Mahal was to be initially constructed in this town), the Burhanpur Mawa Jalebi is definitely high up on my Best Desserts Of India list. Chewy-fudgy in texture, the batter gives the jalebi a wonderfully complex flavour, and the deep frying (the exterior is almost black) renders maximum caramelisation. The Burhanpur Mawa Jalebi is a Ramzan highlight in most cities up north and in Mumbai, and jalebis are fried late into the night, the air thick with the sticky-sweet fragrance of boiling sugar, cardamom, and rose water.
From makeshift shacks to premium sweet stores, the jalebi finds fandom everywhere.