In search of the perfect jalebi

I bite into the street-side jalebi the vendor sells near my house every day from 5 in the evening. As the halwai moves his hand swiftly over the hot oil, spreading wild strings of batter, my heart flutters with hope. I cautiously buy four pieces for ₹10. It’s a caution developed over the last decade living in different cities in India. I don’t wait long before devouring the sweet. It needs to be eaten hot before the sugar crystallises over the surface. The sugar syrup coating dissolves in my mouth as I bite the slightly soggy body of the jalebi, a little too sour from the yogurt. My heart sinks. This is not the one.

I return home, to an apartment tiny in comparison to the home I grew up in. Maybe it is the distance that has made my stomach grow fonder, I think to myself. This love for jalebi may be a manifestation of the time spent away from home where the hot and tantalising sweet was always close by. Now I am afraid that this whole business of writing about it will lead to frustration rather than catharsis. Nonetheless, I try and clear the rusted memory of my mother getting a bag full of hot jalebis when I was 13. We weren’t a family that would eat outside food too often. So getting to eat these sticky treats at 4.30 in the afternoon was an unexpected treat. Deep-fried till perfectly crisp they had a layer of shiny, smooth sugar that engulfed my teenage senses like a storm. Life was never the same again.

A little about these nifty little devils. Piping hot, jalebi is consumed alone or with an exciting partner, usually the harmonious saffron rabri or the sharply contrasting curd. I found out about this outrageous combination only seven years ago. “Preposterous! What is next?,” I reacted. Turned out that dahi-jalebi was a common breakfast item in Uttar Pradesh. Immediately a second thought went through my brain. ‘Jalebi for breakfast,’ my brain signalled to my stomach.

The stomach gave in soon enough. Biting into my first piece, hands tense with hesitation, it took me only a few seconds to understand the concept. The curd helped cut through the saccharine sweetness, eventually leading me to consume more jalebis than otherwise possible. A genius businessman must have created the idea, I concluded.

Three things to watch

What’s all this fuss over a common sweet, one might ask. We are after all only talking about a bit of deep-fried flour dipped in sugar syrup. It’s not something as complex as a good bottle of wine or a smelly cheese. And yet anyone who has ever eaten a good jalebi will know the subtle beauty of this simple sweet is very difficult to replicate perfectly. Three basic elements work in tandem: the flavour of the batter, the syrupy consistency of the slightly caramelised sugar, and the duration for which it’s fried in hot oil to turn golden. Additionally, the circumference of each spiral can determine the crunch vs. juice ratio. Chewy, flat, soggy — these are all failure codes in Jalebi Land.

My adult life has been a series of encounters with such failed reproductions. In my present life, I am surrounded by hundreds of stores laden with jalebi, but these pale yellow confectioneries don’t seduce me with their candied gaze.

In my opinion, the difference between an average jalebi and the perfect one is no less than that between an original Hermès bag and a second or third copy. But unlike that absurdly expensive bag, the perfect jalebi will never leave you bankrupt. The perfect jalebi is just a play on simplicity and texture. A fermented semi-solid mix of flour and yogurt, poured into piping hot oil through a punctured muslin cloth to make spirals — that’s all it is.

Muddled together into oil, it is not born alone. The halwai makes them four or five at a time, conjoined like Siamese quadruplets. But they are baptised as jalebis only upon their immersion into the thick, luxurious sugar syrup that bubbles quietly on the neighbouring burner for hours. When made with love, food can turn into an experience worth its weight in expensive leather bags.

First love

I jog my memory for the exact moment that I fell in love with jalebi but I come up blank. Instead, I begin reminiscing about my favourite sweet-shop in the chaotic streets of Lakshmi Nagar. Every evening, sharp at four, the halwai would begin the process of making a fresh batch that would sell out within two hours. Here, they were razor thin, and thus entirely crisp.

Every jalebi for the rest of my life has always fallen short in comparison, leading to a lifetime of disappointment. Fortunately, there have been a few moments of beauty sprinkled around, possibly the universe’s way of helping me maintain my waistline.

The last time I tasted a my perfect jalebi was in Kolkata, in a mithai shop near Wood Burn Park Road. Just like the Lakshmi Nagar shop, here too the jalebis lasted only for two hours every morning.

While I don’t recall the exact moment I was smitten with the sweet, I do have a vivid memory of the time I first laid eyes on one. It was in a popular advertisement for Dhara cooking oil where a little boy, leaving home angrily, is persuaded to stay back when his mother proposes to make jalebis. Such was the power of this delicious sweet in the collective imagination that it could dissolve anger. For that boy and for many others like me, jalebis symbolised love. Possibly that’s why I miss them so much. They remind me of something exceptional, yet simple. Like home.

The Mumbai-based screenwriter is a gastronomy aficionado and pop-culture enthusiast .

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Printable version | Jul 4, 2022 11:18:22 am |