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Multicultural Spotlight: Discussing the origins of Gulab Jamun

Written for The Argo by Annie Imran

Whether it is for birthdays, weddings, or holidays, ask any desi about their go-to celebration sweet, and they will for sure say that it is Gulab Jamun.

For anyone who’s never had Gulab Jamun (or Rose Berry), the best way to describe it would be a brown doughy ball of sopping rosy sugary goodness. What makes this mithai so beloved is its floral tones, as the sugar syrup it’s dunked in is made with green cardamom, saffron, and a mixture of floral waters—most famously, rose water.

Gulab Jamun is enjoyed by people around the world. Photo courtesy of Pixahive.

Sure, desis will never turn down a traditional Gulab Jamun, but where did this delight come from? It might surprise some to learn that as established as this desert is, its true origins are unknown; however, lingering theories and stories might point to how this sweet treat has become such a staple in desi festivities.

A popular theory of the Gulab Jamun’s birth is that it was accidentally created by the chef of the renowned Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who ordered the construction of the Taj Mahal.

If that explanation does not satisfy, culinary historian Michael Krondl writes in his book, The Donut: History, Recipes, and Lore from Boston to Berlin, about how the Persians introduced many sweets to South Asia when they invaded thousands of years ago. Amongst these was a fried sweet fritter; the recipe of which became complicated over time and is now known as the precious Gulab Jamun. (Complicated is the key word as the Persian recipe went from frying simple dough and dunking it into a sweet rosewater mixture to the Indian recipe of mixing both dried and fresh milk to thicken the flour of the dough.)

As a side note: another iconic desi sweet dessert that finds its origins in the Persian invasion is jalebi, known originally as zulbia.

Today, Gulab Jamun has many different variations, depending on what part of South Asia you are in, such as Bangladesh’s Kaala Jaam. It has even become a “flavor” profile. One can find Gulab Jamun flavored drinks, custards, and even boba tea. But, no matter how Gulab Jamun is modernized, its traditional form can never be knocked from its top-tier pedestal in the eyes of desis everywhere.