Gulab Jamun, The Mughals’ Gift To India?
Image Credit: The true origins of the Gulab Jamun are unknown. Image courtesy: Pexels

Golden, shiny, soft, sweet and alluring—these are perhaps the best adjectives you could use for Gulab Jamun. In India today, Gulab Jamun is a type of mithai or sweet dish that is not only available at your local halwai shops, but also in forms that speak to its popularity. Grocery shops are packed with ready-to-make Gulab Jamun mixes that even beginner-level cooks can whip up in no time. Airports and train stations are stocked with canned Gulab Jamun for those who want to share the sweetmeat with their loved ones waiting at the end of the journey.  

This isn’t the only reason why Gulab Jamun is considered to be India’s favourite sweet—some would argue it’s the Jalebi, others would pitch Rasagulla as a contender, but we all know that there isn’t a single Indian household which doesn’t love getting the gift of Gulab Jamun. Further proof of this popularity lies in the fact that there are actually towns in this country which have their own versions of Gulab Jamun. In Maigalganj, Uttar Pradesh, a sweet vendor started selling Gulab Jamuns in earthen pots. The version became so popular that even today, people travel to Maigalganj to taste Matka Gulab Jamun. In Katangi, Madhya Pradesh, Gulab Jamun is known as the bigger-sized Jhurre Ka Rasagulla. In Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, a dry version of the Gulab Jamun, rolled in powdered sugar, is sold. 

The Legend Of The Gulab Jamun

And these are just some of the well-known versions of the sweet offering that is Gulab Jamun. While these prove that Gulab Jamun is indeed the most popular sweet in India, these varieties make it quite difficult to trace the exact origins of the sweet dish. What we do know for sure is that the name Gulab Jamun is of Persian origins. The word Gulab is derived from the Persian words Gol or flower and Ab or water, which combined refer to as rose water syrup. Jamun is derived from the Hindi-Urdu name of the black plum fruit, which is roughly similar to the shape and size of the Gulab Jamun. 

Legend has it that the gulab Jamun was accidentally invented by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s royal chef, who was inspired by both Persian and local Indian halwais. Quite like the Gulab jamun, Persian Bamieh and Turkish Tulumba are prepared with a deep-fried soft dough which is dipped in syrup—but these are served cold instead of hot like Gulab Jamun. Many also believe that Gulab Jamun can be traced back to the Arabic Luqmat Al Qadi, another syrup-dipped deep-fried dough-based sweet. Food historians like Michael Krondl believe that Shah Jahan’s chefs were able to take Persian-origin recipes and turn them into a more nuanced Gulab Jamun by adding flavours like cardamoms and rose water syrup.  

However, food historian Colleen Taylor Sen, who has chapters dedicated to how the Mughals ate, does not mention this story at all. If, in fact, Gulab Jamun had been invented by Shah Jahan’s chefs, there would have been at least some mention of the dish or its recipe in the many accounts of the era—some of which detail all the dishes the Mughal royals used to eat, including Jahangir’s favourite, Khichdi. So, despite the folklore, there is no actual evidence to prove that the Gulab Jamun originated in Shah Jahan’s royal kitchens. 

Was The Gulab Jamun A Regional Discovery? 

Despite there being a dearth of evidence, it is quite likely that the Gulab Jamun was in fact inspired by Persian, Turkish and Arabic sweets. The thing with food—and I consider it to be one of its hallmarks—is that it travels with people and is transformed in some way or the other by everyone who eats it and adopts it. In that sense, how the Gulab jamun was invented and by whom is not as important as the cultural impact it has had. As the examples from Maigalganj, Katangi and Kumbakonam prove, the Gulab Jamun travelled the length and breadth of India and impressed halwais and consumers so much that there are innumerable regional variations to the dish. 

And as for origin stories, it is just as likely that the Gulab Jamun was invented by a local sweet maker rather than a royal chef. After all, the Gulab Jamun has plenty of culinary cousins associated with regional food histories. Take Ledikeni for example. The cylindrical sweet from Kolkata resembles the colour and flavours of the Gulab Jamun like no other sweet dish in the country, not even the Kala Jamun. Ledikeni, the legend goes, was accidentally created in the 1850s by Bhim Chandra Nag in the honour of Lady Canning, the wife of the then Governor General. But was it an accident? 

Given that there are plenty of syrup-dipped sweets across the Indian subcontinent, can any sweet dish like the Gulab Jamun have a 100 per cent verified, true origin story? Of course not! But the popularity of the sweet dish and its many variations across the subcontinent prove that no matter what its true origins, Gulab Jamun has and always will have a transformational and inspirational impact of cooks as well as consumers.