Updated: June 2, 2019 6:30:35 am
The aroma wafting in the air one evening reminded me of home in Delhi. It had been barely a month that I had moved to Mumbai and was getting acquainted with the ways in which sea fish cast its sway over the smells of the city. But odours can be deceptive: Fried to a perfect crunch, Bombay Duck, Mumbai’s signature fish, seemed to be the sea’s way of extending its friendship to a new resident. There was also a “make-yourself-comfortable” message in the fragrance that issued when besan, mixed with spices, crackled in hot oil at the bhajji shops, which dot almost every corner of the city. And, the crispness of the onion, potato and chilli fritters was delightfully enhanced by the hint of ground garlic in the accompanying coconut chutney. But something seemed to be missing.
It was the month of Ramzan. On a pushcart near the mosque at one corner of the apartment complex in Chembur, my new home in Mumbai, a tall, thin man was briskly piping out spirals of batter into hot oil. His assistant would then pick up the coils of concentric circles and immerse them in a wok filled with sugar syrup. It had begun drizzling and a throng of impatient people, who had just broken their fast, urged the halwai and his assistant to hurry up.
I had been told that Mumbai had its jalebi shops but was yet to find one. The temptation was too much to resist. Jostling with the eager customers, I was greeted by a familiar face: A few weeks ago, this young man had repaired the air-conditioners at my home. Waving away my pleas that he should be eating first, Imran quickly got me a packetful of my favourite sweetmeat. The drizzle had turned heavy and I struggled to balance my office bag and the piled newsprint with hot jalebis. But as the sugar syrup seeped into my hands, I knew what I had missed during my month-long stay in my new home.
Do you like them? Imran asked. Engrossed in eating, I nodded in acknowledgment. The jalebis were wiry and somewhat different from the mushy variety that I was used to having in Delhi. The Oxford Companion to Food History (1999) notes “that jalebi batter is usually based on plain flour, baking powder and water, but may include other ingredients such as rice flour, semolina and colouring. After being allowed to rest for a while, so that it ferments slightly, the batter is forced through a nozzle to form loops in hot ghee”. But such is the pull of the sugar-syrup-coated orange whorls that its devotees don’t mind when some of these nuances are given the go-by. My treat that evening was fried in cheap vegetable oil, but I almost burnt my tongue in my eagerness to savour it.
Food historian K T Achaya writes that jalebi is “a corruption of the Persian word zalabiya”. The Oxford Companion to Food History notes that, “in Iran, it is known as zoolabiya, and is still often made on special occasions and given to the poor in Ramadan”. “Similar confections are made all over the Middle East. In neighbouring Afghanistan, a variety is traditionally served with fish during the winter months, in an association that is so close that the jalebis appear in mounds on the fishmongers’ stalls,” the volume notes.
Food historians believe that jalebi came to India from West Asia around the 15th-16th centuries. Achaya cites a 15th century Jain monk, Jinasura, to describe a feast in which jalebi was served. He also quotes the 17th century Kannada text, Soundara Vilasa, which describes “jilabi” as “tasty as nectar”. That was exactly my feeling when I thanked Imran. He pushed aside the Rs 50 note, I offered. “No way, you are our mehmaan,” he said.
Over the next few months, I would make it a point to ask Imran about jalebis in Mumbai almost every time I met him. But he would be strangely reticent. One day, Imran broke the ice: “Sir, your love for jalebis takes me to my childhood in Amroha. They would be soft and crisp at the same time. But not too sweet. For, we would dip them in creamy rabdi.” Imran’s eyes gleamed as he said: “The ultimate test of a good jalebi is when it’s had with milk. If there is a thick layer of ghee on top, rest assured, the sweet is of the best quality.”
I had another conversation with him about jalebi. I was returning to Delhi and invited Imran for a treat of paneer jalebi at Kallan Sweets near Jama Masjid. “Insha Allah,” he responded, flashing the toothy grin I had become familiar with.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Bon Appetit! Whorlsome Delights’
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