Jalebi - Swirls of History

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    Call it what you will - Zlabia, Zalabiya, Zoolabiya, Jilbi, Jilapi or Zelapi, the sweet and syrupy swirls of flavoured sugar dripping dough, have been relished for around 600 years, or more.

    While it is difficult to pinpoint its actual origin, we have some clues.

    TheOxford Companion to Food traces the earliest mention of the recipe of this savoury to the 13th century CE when it was listed in Al Baghdadi’s cookery book. The Oxford Companion also draws some geographical linkages. The jalebi is known in Iran as the zoolabiya or zulubiya and it is prepared on special occasions and distributed to the poor during the month of Ramzan. In Lebanon, they have the zellabiya (shaped like a finger rather than swirl). There are also versions of the jalebi found in Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, indicating the wide fame of this sumptuous treat!

    The earliest recorded reference to the jalebi in India is from the 15th century CE. There is a reference to the jalebi in a Jain work Priyamkarnrpakatha by Jinasura, which is believed to have been composed in 1450 CE. The jalebi also finds mention in later works including the 17th-century classic, Bhojan-kutuhala by Raghunatha, though under a different name.

    In an article written in the Times of India, late journalist Dileep Padgaonkar refers to a paper by PK Gode, an Indologist at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune. In the paper, Gode states that he found a mention of the jalebi in a work on cookery called the ‘Gunyagunabodhini’ which dates back to before 1600 CE. Written in Sanskrit verse form, it lists the materials used in the sweetmeat and explains the different methods to prepare it. They are almost identical to the materials and methods used in making jalebis in India today.

    Across the world, jalebi is known by many different names like zlabia, zalabiya, zoolabiya , jilbi, jilapi or zelapi

    While the jalebi obviously travelled through the old trade routes to make its way across the region, there are many variations to it, with ingredients that vary as well. For example in some parts of the country, the batter used to make jalebi consists of urad dal ( a kind of lentil) and rice flour with a little besan or ground gram and wheat flour. In some other parts, it also includes semolina and baking powder. In Bengal, dairy products like chhena ( similar to curd) and khoa are added to the jalebi.

    The way it is consumed varies as well. In Afghanistan, it is served with fish during the winter months!

    The jalebi is a testimony to the close cultural links we all have, but sadly, this has not been used to our advantage. Much more can be done to promote this much-loved dessert - Look at what Europe has done with its chocolate!

    Did You Know?

    Modern styles of cooking like fusion and molecular gastronomy have led to the creation of innovative variants like jalebi caviar and apple jalebi. While the jalebi caviar is one of the signature dishes at Zorawar Kalra’s Masala Library, apple jalebi can be found at places like Café Lota in New Delhi.

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