Gulab Jamun: Exploring The Roots Of The Decadent Indian Dessert
Image Credit: Freepik

The luscious milk-based sweet dish gulab jamun is woven into the cultural framework of India. Not only has the dessert made waves internationally, but it also features prominently in Indian festivals and during special events, such as birthdays, anniversaries, and weddings. In this way, the celebratory dessert helps unite people through its enriching flavour and texture. While gulab jamun tastes sublime by itself, it also pairs well with ice cream and other sweets, such as rabri, highlighting the versatility of the dessert.

Owing to its versatility, gulab jamun has several regional variations. For example, a dry version of the dessert called “Kumbakonam,” is relished in Tamil Nadu. This variation of gulab jamun comprises a crunchy crust sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar; it’s also typically smaller than regular gulab jamun. Another variation of the dessert is called “kala jamun.” As the name indicates, this jamun tends to be darker and crispier than traditional gulab jamun as its batter is loaded with more sugar.

Gulab jamun also has quite a few interesting origin stories. Explore these stories, below.

Gulab Jamun: Origins

Food experts and historians haven’t been able to nail down gulab jamun’s exact origin story. However, several colourful theories are associated with the dessert. One of these theories hearkens back to the days of the illustrious Mughal Dynasty. It’s believed that the dessert was accidentally created by Emperor Shah Jahan’s regal chefs; the story goes that they initially sought to create a completely different dish, but ended up creating an early iteration of gulab jamun.

Other theories suggest that gulab jamun may have evolved from foreign sweet dishes, such as the Persian “bamieh” and the “Turkish tulumba.” Like gulab jamun, both these treats are composed of deep-fried, round-shaped dumplings drenched in sugar syrup. The Arabic dessert “luqmat-al-qadi,” which comprises fried dough balls soaked in honey, is also considered an inspiration for gulab jamun.

Image Credits: By Fars Media Corporation, CC BY 4.0/Wikimedia Commons

The theory linking the dessert to Persia holds particular relevance as the name is derived from the Persian, with “gulab” meaning rose water and “jamun” referring to a native fruit. Further, Michael Krond, in the publication The Donut: History, Recipes, and Lore from Boston to Berlin, mentions Persian invaders bringing with them a “round fritter,” which gradually became gulab jamun. Krond also notes that the Indian version of the dessert is more layered than the Middle Eastern one as it calls for a combination of mixed and fresh milk supplemented with flour.

Now, check out a simple homemade recipe for gulab jamun.

Gulab Jamun: Recipe

2 cups sugar

2 cups water

½ cup maida

100 grams milk powder

2 cardamom

2 tablespoons ghee

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon rose water

½ teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon kesar

Milk, as needed, for kneading

Oil, as needed, for frying


Image Credits: Freepik

Step 1: Mix milk powder, maida, and baking powder in a bowl. Add ghee to the concoction and mix well.

Step 2: Add milk to the concoction and wait till it begins to come together. Don’t start kneading the dough; cover the mixture and allow it to rest.

Step 3: In a pan, stir together sugar, water, cardamom, and saffron over medium heat. Continue stirring till the concoction becomes sticky.

Step 4: Switch off the heat and introduce lemon juice and rose water to the concoction. Seal the mixture and set it aside for resting.

Step 5: Start shaping the dough into small balls. Drop the balls in ghee or oil for frying till they become golden brown in colour.

Step 6: Drain the balls and soak them in sugar syrup. Cover them and set aside for 2 hours. Serve them warm once they’ve doubled in size after melding with the syrup.