Rare are the occasions when a bowl of gulab jamun is missing from a serving table. Just the thought of the Indian dessert is enough to bring a smile on our faces. These petite, fried balls of dough steeped in a sugary syrup called chashni fused with cardamom, saffron and rose water are usually served warm or at room temperature.
However, long before the dessert became popular in India, it was initially a dish made to ‘sway the opinion of a judge’ in ancient times, and history reveals that it was known as luqmat al-qadi or ‘judge’s morsel’ in Iran. In a research done by Randy K Scwartz, an American professor at Schoolcraft College in Michigan, USA, he notes that "the earliest mention of 'judge’s morsels' by that name occurs in a cookery manuscript from the thirteenth century... the name 'judge’s morsel' suggests a delectable worthy of a judge, a highly esteemed official."
So, how did it reach India with the title ‘gulab jamun’?
A quick take on history
American food historian Michael Krondl, highlights in his book ‘The Donut: History, Recipes, and Lore from Boston to Berlin’ that it was during the Islamic presence in eighteenth century India, when gulab jamun was popularised. “They [Iranian traders] also bought a round fritter that eventually became gulab jamun… a sweet-scented morsel that is about the size of a ping-pong ball. The [Indian] recipe is more complex than in the Middle East, requiring a mixture of dried and fresh milk thickened with flour. But as in Iran, the mixture is fried and soaked in rosewater syrup.”
Krondl was right – the Indian recipe features cardamom and mawa or khoa, which is milk cooked and reduced to solids. The term ‘gulab jamun’ is derived from the Iranian words ‘gul’, which means flower, and ‘ab’ which means water, referring to rosewater-scented syrup. The word ‘jamun’ came from the Indian fruit of the same name, which translates to black plum.
There is also a theory that the dessert was the result of an experiment by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s chef who dipped fried dough balls in sugar after being inspired by how the Turkish tulumba and Iranian bamieh were prepared. Another theory narrates that a Sikh chef Sajjan Dhillon prepared the dish as a token of appreciation for the ruler of Punjab at the time. There are no actual records to prove any of them.
Speaking of tokens…
Gulab jamun also has a Greek connection. In ancient Grecian literature, Callimachus, a Greek poet from 3BC, noted that mini sweet bites called ‘loukoumades’ or ‘honey tokens’ were given as prizes to the victors of the Olympic games.
According to tastleatlas.com, “the dish – loukoumades or lokma – is considered to be one of the oldest recorded desserts in Greek history… the origin of lokma fritters is ancient but often debated. It is presumed that they first appeared in Greece or Turkey, though some suggest Arabic origin.
“The name probably stems from Arabic luqma, meaning bite or mouthful, and it is said that lokmas were first prepared in Turkey by the sultans' cooks in palaces of the Ottoman Empire, though the oldest documentation of a similar dish was even found in the tomb of Ramses IV of Egypt.”
This etymology solves the mystery of how the present-day Emirati luqaimat is connected to the Indian gulab jamun.
The many names of gulab jamun today
In nineteenth century West Bengal, there was a man named Bhim Chandra Nag. Legend has it that the confectioner prepared a special sweetmeat using flour dough, which were then fried and soaked in sugar syrup. The dish was prepared by the Bengali confectioner to honour Lady Canning, who was the first vicerine of India. She love the dessert dish so much that she requested that it be made for every occasion, and went by the name of ledikeni.
Pantua is also another name given to the dessert in Bengal, but it popularly goes by gulab jamun across the world over. In Mauritius it is called ‘gulaabujaanu’, and in Bangladesh and Myanmar, as 'gulab jam'. Gulab jamun is also the national dessert of Pakistan.
Has this story got you craving a bite of gulab jamun? Here’s a quick recipe:
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