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PRABEEN SINGH
HIGH TABLE

Jalebi can be a breakfast treat, unadorned and dunked in fresh hot milk

any deep-fried and syrup-drenched curlicues of flour have been called jalebis. Most of these are clumsy imposters -- thick, soggy & yellowy-orange where the original is a pale nutty brown, wire-thin and crunchy. The true jalebi comes in several guises and serves several occasions. In its everyday avatar, it can be a breakfast treat, unadorned and dunked in fresh hot milk. Or, when guests drop in for tea, send out to the sweet shop for a packet of hot jalebis and savoury samosas. And in many families, no ceremonial occasion is complete without a dessert of jalebi, dressed up with saffron and served alongside a rich rabri (sweetened milk cooked down on a rolling boil to a semi-solid consistency). The quality of the raw material, including the yeast used, the slight of hand in turning the batter into the prescribed shape, wrapping it in the fresh green leaves of the Doona tree are essential - all these and more determine a superior jalebi to the commercial lot sold in every neighbourhood sweet shop. Ask the jalebi connoisseurs if jalebi bought at the neighbourhood Halwai taste the same as the jalebi from this particular jalebi maker whose forefathers began the trade in mid 18th century. The answer would begin with an incredulous expression, followed by a very firm- 'Not quite'.

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‘The Persian general’s favourite concubine refused to accompany him, till cajoled by the offer to hire the finest Zoolbia [jalebi] cook in the entourage of the general’s traveling kitchen.”
I guess I have to accept the claim of the of frequent jalebi gobblers who will travel long distance, braving heat, dust, cold, rain, across the city of Delhi and its hazardous traffic [thank you Sheila ji for the Metro!] to that one particular shop in Old Delhi. The supreme expression of satisfaction after the first bite, rests their claim. 'Tradition' 'Heritage' 'Asli Dilli' are monosyllabic explanations directed at me. I stand converted and humbled! In days gone by another key ingredient was the delicate turn of the wrist—which would ignite a passionate debate on the superior touch of a woman to that of the male cook. However I have not seen any women jalebi makers sitting on any corner of India or elsewhere cooking jalebis. Commercial cooking has been the prerogative/preserve of the men.

Since its import into India by Persian traders, or if you wish to romanticise its route, with the Persian contingent of Mughal Emperor Nasir ud-din Muhammad Humayun, marching back to reclaim the Empire which he lost in 1540 AD in Kannauj to Sher Shah Suri. My poetic license in recounting this story could be extended to weaving a story similar to the 1001 Arabian night fables: 'The Persian general's favourite concubine refused to accompany him, till cajoled by the offer to hire the finest Zoolbia [jalebi] cook in the entourage of the general's traveling kitchen.'

Fact: Zoolbia, popularly appropriated as integral part of North Indian cuisine, did come to us via the Persians. In Persia it was particularly distributed after Ramadan to the poor. However it should be pointed out that Iranian friends think the origin of the zoolbia is not Persian, since almost all Persian names mean something, whereas zoolbia has no meaning.

he origin in all likelihood was Mesopotamia, as the first recorded reference to the sweet are found in the 13th century cookbook written by Muhammad bin Hassan.

Zoolbia morphed into a jalebi, as most Indian languages did not use Z as frequently as J—and it was altered in taste to because of subtle differences in the raw material. Although most popular in North India, because the Mughals expanded their territories south of the Vindhyas jalebi is one of the very few foods that is common in even in Southern parts of India. The name and taste once more changes according to the popular language in use, but keeps its roots in jalebi.

In India, one of the earliest known references to Jalebi exists in a Jain manuscript called Priyam Kamrpakatha written by Jinasura around 1450AD. This contradicts my own story of the Persian general and his concubine. So who brought it to the people of Dilli? The answer is still blowing in the wind! We get to read the 'authentic' recipe in a cookbook –Bojan Kutuhala by Raghunatha in the 17th century.

And as an asli Dilli wala says 'the jalebi is holistic. It is a closed system. Like nature it keeps recycling - forever going round and round'. We love it!

 
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