Gulab Jamun: The sweet globe of deliciousness

When it comes to the fine art of charming the sweet palate, few have worked the magic like Gulab Jamun — a sweet everyone knows and loves. It is also the sweet that the legendary Jiggs Kalra said defines Indian Independence in its essence.
Gulab jamun is a culinary national icon.
Gulab Jamun is a culinary national icon.

A few years ago, when Chef Gaurrav Gidwani, F&B Director, Brewdog India Bars, decided to make his own version of the then infamous Gulab Jamun Cheesecake, he was sure of one thing: it would be a hit. The fusion take, albeit hugely criticised by peers as ‘lazy work’ was immensely popular among diners who found the combination “curiously delicious”. The reason, recalls Chef Gidwani, “that this cheesecake version earned its stripes was not only in its interesting composition but also in its recognition. Gulab Jamun, a beyond-doubt Indian creation, is perhaps the most recognised and loved sweet in the country. Plus, the many experiments we have had over the years when the golden to dark brown globe of deliciousness has been served with payesh, phirni, ice cream and even rabri has made it one of the most versatile sweets next to kheer. Pairing it with cheesecake was an understandable move. What enticed chefs into experimenting with such a pairing was Gulab Jamun’s inherent balancing quality. For instance, in a cheesecake which is less sweet, using Gulab Jamun can add that right amount of sweet to elevate the sourness into deliciousness.”

Concurs Chef Sayantan Chakraborty, Executive Sous Chef, Taj Vivanta Bhubaneswar, who finds the cheesecake a delicious representation of the brilliance of Gulab Jamun. Depending on which version of Gulab Jamun one uses in this fusion, says Chef Chakraborty, “one can elevate the cheesecake not only in terms of taste that is attuned to the Indian palate, in theatrics but also in terms of creating a dessert that can incorporate other elements which in traditional formats may not fit the profile.”

Chef sayantan chakraborty putting the finishing touches to his gulab jamun cheesecake.
Chef Sayantan Chakraborty putting the finishing touches to his Gulab Jamun Cheesecake.

An example of this is Chef Gidwani’s cheesecake that uses a chutney style cranberry-saffron compote on the top to give the tartness to the sweet-on-sweet combination. Likewise, for Chef Chakraborty’s version too that uses two different variants of Gulab Jamun — “one being the chenna-based Bengali favourite lyangcha” — to create the palate play.

A crowning glory

Fascinatingly, the Gulab Jamun cheesecake is amongst the many versions that Gulab Jamun in its lifetime has managed to muse including the club and coffee house popularised Gulab Jamun served with ice cream. While no one knows about the origin of this popular pairing, says Chef Pradeep Khosla, VP, The Alcor Hotel, Jamshedpur, “it is often attributed to the khansamas of the modern royals and more likely has a post-independence advent. The pairing has been fruitful in popularising Gulab Jamun, especially the Kala Jamun version, to a wider audience.”

Even today, it is one of the most acceptable fusions one finds across iconic places and in weddings where, continues the Nizam and Nawab cuisine specialist, “it works on the same principle of contrasting flavour and textural play to make it an experiential indulgence.” Many, in fact, believe it was the way that the British finally began enjoying warm Gulab Jamun, and an iteration of which, says culinary anthropologist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “could be found on the table of Lady Canning who is said to have mused the creation of the famous Ledikeni.”

The many shades of Gulab Jamun

Continues Chef Gorai, “It is after the creation of Ledikeni by the famous confectioner Bhim Chandra Nag in honour of Governor General Lord Charles Canning that Gulab Jamun, a delicacy that played high in the Mughal court and those thereafter, first began to appeal to the colonial palate. It laid the foundation of varieties that came with fillings much like chum chum. It was around this time that the sweetmeat makers decided to slice open the lyangcha [a darker, textured variant created by the mithai karigars of Bangladesh as per Chef Chakraborty] and filled it with rabri.”

Many believe that the iteration was also influenced by the Mahakoshal cuisine of Madhya Pradesh which has two different takes on the Gulab Jamun called the Mawa Batti and the Khoya Jalebi, the latter of which, says Chef Harangad Singh, owner, Parat, “is said to have led to the creation of Old Delhi’s famous Kali Jalebi and our special Paan Gulab Jamun, which works on the same principle as the sweet Mawa Batti albeit with a difference. In our version, we use meetha paan to give it that fragrant afterbite.”

Kali jalebi is a close cousin of gulab jamun.
Kali Jalebi is a close cousin of Gulab Jamun.

Curiously, the trend of designing fillings for these sweet globes, says Chef Akshraj Jodha, Executive Chef, ITC Grand Bharat, “to quite an extent goes to the mithai makers of Bikaner who were masters of khoa, whose remnants have been found in the Indus Valley Civilisation, and its many variants including the darker Marwari Gulab Jamun that is a speciality of Chaturbhuj Parasram in Jodhpur and the now-famous Gulab Jamun Ki Sabzi that is one of the finer examples of khoa’s role in Rajasthani food. In fact, Shandar Sweet Home, a 40-plus-year-old eatery is known for this dish that uses khoa in two different ways — in its savoury Gulab Jamun and its rich gravy as well.”

The shape, texture and the use of khoa/mawa or chenna or at times both became the mark of distinction between two Gulab Jamuns from any region along with the coating like in the case of Kala Jamun where the balls are coated with sugar before frying. In the South, says Chef Yogendra Pal, Executive Chef, Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty, “the signature move was coating the Kala Jamun-styled sweet in desiccated coconut. There are, of course, a few versions that were known purely because of their softness, size and fillings and the way they were served. Like the Rasabali of Odisha, which is served in a bowl of milk, or the Zauk e Shahi, which was this mini-me size Gulab Jamun served with rabri.”

The rasguliya is marked with interesting fillings.
The Rasguliya is marked with interesting fillings.

Then there were others like Rasguliya, which was marked with interesting fillings that could range from, says Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Zest, “simple elaichi to dried rose petals. Served in a kulhar, it was one of the most sought-after treats across Amritsar especially around Diwali and was made à la minute.”

Much like Chef Seth’s version of the Rasguliya which instead of having rose petals has an in-house gulkand in the centre and as tradition would demand is made on request and served in a kulhar that gives these bite-sized Gulab Jamuns an amazing aroma and taste.

Gulab Jamun’s much-debated history

There are many theories when it comes to how Gulab Jamun came to be. According to Chef Srinivas A., Senior Sous Chef, Chor Bizarre, “the most popular is that the muse of Gulab Jamun came from Persia and was re-tweaked in the royal kitchens of Emperor Shah Jahan. The other is that it came from Multan in the latter half of the medieval period and was popularised first as a street sweet and then made its way to royalty because it had a better shelf life and could travel compared to the other sweets made of mawa. There is also the version where the Bikaneri sweetmeat makers and those from Midnapur and Burdwan are given the credit of creating the sweet as another way to utilise chenna.”

Chor bizarre's gulab jamun inspired by the multan version.
Chor Bizarre’s Gulab Jamun inspired by the Multan version.

In retrospect, continues the Indian sweetmeat specialist, “one finds that the Gulab Jamun is a creation born off the ingenuity of the halwais and karigars, supported by the influences that travelled to India through the Silk Route. And here is why. To begin with Gulab Jamun’s Turkish equivalent is luqmat el qadi, which is made of batter that has egg and flour vis-a-vis ours, which is a soft dough made predominantly with khoa/mawa and flour or semolina used for binding. Of course, some of the Multan Gulab Jamun versions are pretty close to lukma. So not lukma but the Multan variety could be a muse.”

The other reason that makes Gulab Jamun decisively Indian, says Chef Seth, “is that both deep frying and the use of khoa were popular in our culinary space even before the Mughals, courtesy the fact that India back then was a pastoral community with a stomach for all things dairy.”

Agrees Chef Gorai, who points at the existence of fried sweets like the Ariselu, Sandesh and Chenna barfi in our food space since the early years of civilisation. In fact, he adds, “both chenna and khoa in the Indus Valley Civilisation were part of instant sweet things that were valued enough to be offered in temples as well.”

It is likely that we did have a version of Gulab Jamun in sweet or savoury form here too. However, say the chefs, “the name Gulab Jamun could have been a contribution of the extended Delhi Sultanate, an era that saw many sweet makers, halwais and karigars land in the fortified capital to create some of the most fascinating sweets we know today including the Jalebi, Halwa and the modern-day version of the Gulab Jamun.”

The making of an icon

While the history of the beloved sweet could be mired in conjecture, there is little denying the way Gulab Jamun has garnered its stripes as a pan-Indian sweet purely on, says Chef Pal, “its sheer ability to be a modern period sweet that not only adapted locally to local ingredients and making style but also to the taste. The result are the many versions of Gulab Jamun one finds today that have been effectively paired with a variety of other traditional and non-traditional sweets including the crispier crust, sugar-coated Gulab Jamun of Kumbakonam that was created by Kumbakonam Murari Sweet.”

Other examples of Gulab Jamun’s versatility, says Chef Srinivas, “is the Pantua, which is made of semolina, chenna, milk, ghee and sugar syrup, and has this signature dark brown colour with mishri in the centre; and Jhurre Ka Rasagulla, which is double the size of Gulab Jamun and a speciality of Katangi town.”

What better way to celebrate independence day than with a kala jamun tart?
What better way to celebrate Independence Day than with a Kala Jamun Tart?

In fact, the Atomic Kala Jamun served at United Coffee House Rewind is easily a fine take on the Katangi version, where a warm Kala Jam weighing 720 grams is served topped with kesar pista ice cream, creating this volcanic explosion of flavours when eaten.

No wonder when legendary food writer Jiggs Kalra was asked which sweet defines Independence in essence, he had named Gulab Jamun. After all, the sweet has not only played a decisive role in revolutionary India by becoming the code for bomb but has continued to play to the palate of diners with its ability to lend texture, taste, and twist to any dessert it has been paired with.

Places like Neemuch, Katangi and Maigalganj, which began the trend of serving Gulab Jamun in a matka in 1941, have earned the moniker “village of gulab jamun” and stand testimony to this Indian classic’s stardom.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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