The History Behind Dhaka’s Viral ‘Sunflower Jalebi’

A recent video of a Bangladeshi mithai seller making the famous shahi jilapi went viral on Instagram. The Internet was floored by the oversized jalebi, known in Bangladesh as shahi jilapi, which is almost as big as a frisbee and can weigh more than a kg. The Shahi Jilapi’s dubbed by the Internet as a ‘sunflower jalebi’ has a diameter ranging from 3cm to 30cm and is synonymous with festive occasions in Bangladesh. 

It’s widely found in Old Dhaka’s Chowkbazar and some other areas in the old part of the city, where sweet makers still sell traditional sweets. The video which went viral shows a team of halwais making the oversized jalebi using the traditional method; the sweet makers typically use a thick batter (flour, sugar, water, and sometimes yoghurt or semolina) to make circular shapes in the hot oil. 

The jalebi has a coil-like shape and has stokes on one side; after it’s fried it’s dipped in syrup and sold as individual units. One of the key parts of its recipe is the fermentation process. The fermentation of the batter is an important step in the preparation of Shahi Jilapi. Allowing the batter to ferment for an extended period enhances the flavour and texture, giving the Jilapi its characteristic crispiness. The sugar syrup used to soak the fried Jilapis is infused with aromatic ingredients like saffron strands and cardamom powder. 

Shahi Jilapi And Its Beginnings 

In Dhaka, this jilapi is available year-round but it soars in popularity during the month of Ramadan when Chowkbazar sees a wave of food and sweet stalls selling a variety of kebabs, sweetmeats and savouries for Iftaar. The Shahi Jilapi is believed to be a recipe that originated in the bawarchi khanas of Dhaka’s nawabs. 

There are two theories on where the concept of an oversized jalebi comes from. The idea of deep-frying batter and soaking it in sugar syrup, which is the essence of Shahi Jilapi, has ancient roots in Middle Eastern and Indian culinary practices. Whereas, some data suggests that large jalebis were mainly prepared by Dhaka’s nawabs. 

Interestingly, The Nawabs of Dhaka were aristocrats fluent in Persian and Urdu, with roots traced back to Kashmiri Khan Mughal merchants. These merchants originally came to Mughal Bengal during the reign of Emperor Muhammad Shah and established settlements in Dhaka, Sylhet, and Bakerganj. The origins of ‘Jilapi’ can be traced back to ancient Middle Eastern and Indian cuisines, with influences from Persian and Arab traders and the subsequent cultural evolution in the region. 

Whereas, some data suggests that large jalebi were first prepared in this subcontinent by royal households. The jilapi or jalebi we find now has its roots in the West Asian delicacy known as "Zolabiya" or "Zalabiya." In Iran, Zalabiya held significance as a festive treat enjoyed during Ramadan Iftar gatherings. 

The first mention of Zalabiya dates back to the 13th century in the cookbook 'Kitab Al-Tabeekh' by writer Muhammad bin Hasan Al-Baghdadi, where he documented dishes of that era. The introduction of Zalabiya to the Indian subcontinent occurred during medieval times when Turkish and Persian traders and artisans settled along the Indian shores. By the 15th century, it had become a staple at festive occasions, and weddings, and even found its place in temples. So, even the jalebi that you love is one of the oldest desserts of the subcontinent and has actually stood the test of time for centuries!