Jalebi’s zigzag journey to modern day fusions
You can call it jilapi, jalebi, jilbi, zlabia, zalabiya, zoolabiya. These all are the same crunchy sweet coiled deep-fried dough with flavoured sugar syrup dripping within it with a pleasant aroma.
For over 600 years, jilapi has been enjoyed by people around the world. Two types of jilapi are the most common - ‘Chikon jilapi’ and ‘Mota Jilapi.’ Before arriving in our country, jilapi travelled a long zigzag path.
Jalebi’s Zigzag path
Jalebi has a complicated history, just like its shape. Ibnou Nafaa Abdurrahman Ziriab is considered to be the mastermind behind jilapi, but this is difficult to believe since he was not even a chef.
Ziriab was an Iraqi musician who used to travel from country to country. During his time in Tunisia, he came up with the recipe by accident.
It's hard to identify how accurate this assumption is, although Zalabia was popular in Beja, a small Tunisian town.
Another two places where this dessert is said to have originated are Turkey and Iran.
Kitab al-Tabeekh, a medieval Arab cookbook, mentions a theory about its origin. It is an essential component of Iranian tradition to offer Jalebi during Ramadan and Nowruz. In the past, India was a popular trading hub.
During the Middle Ages, a number of traders and craftsmen travelled to undivided India. They brought with them their culture, traditions and cuisine. In 1450 A.D, Zalabiya arrived in India by crossing various borders and turning into jalebi.
One dish, different names
It also goes by a variety of names. Around the world, jalebi is referred to as -
Bangladesh - Jilapi
India/Pakistan - Jalebi
Nepal - Jerry
Sri Lanka - Pani Walalu
Maldives - Zilebi
Iran - Zoolbia/zulbia/zolbia
Azerbaijan - Zilviya
Mauritius - Gateau Moutaille
Variation in Preparation
While the jalebi clearly followed old trade routes across the region, it covers a range of flavours and ingredients.
In some parts of the country, for example, jalebi batter is made using urad dal (a type of lentil) and rice flour, along with a little besan or crushed gram and wheat flour, while others use only besan or refined wheat/maida.
It also contains semolina and baking powder in some areas. Dairy items such as chhana (similar to curd) and khoa are used in Bengali jalebis.
Modern styles of cooking have led to new looks of jalebi as fusion and experiments continue. There are some hyped fusion jalebis.
Chhanar jalebi, soft from inside and outside, is one popular innovation. It is thicker, larger and juicier than the regular size.
Chhanar jalebi. Photo – Banglar Rannaghor
Kesar (zafran) jalebi is hyped, served in restaurants and expensive as well. As kesar is an expensive ingredient, it is not found in local sweet shops.
“I had zafran jilapi in Nawabi Bhoj, a restaurant in Bailey road. They insisted that we try this jilapi since it was new on their menu. It was over-expensive and ordering it was a bad idea. None of us liked it,” said Tasmim Farhana Anika, a 3rd-year Pharmacy student of BRAC University.
Even after being a sweet tooth, she did not like it.
“I usually prefer ‘chikon jilapi’ and the jilapi was thicker than the regular. That was not the problem. It was so hard to break, even with our teeth. It was not juicy and the sweetness level was extreme.”
Tasmim can recall having a weird smell from the jilapi. She is sure that the jalebi had a small amount of zafran against its high price.
Badam jalebi is just like a regular jilapi with various kinds of nuts on top. Jalebi and rabri are said to be made for each other. Rabri is a condensed milk-based sweet dish that is served chilled.
Mamunur Rashid Rumon, who is an intern at Nestle IT sales, shared his experience of having jalebi with rabri.
“I bought it from a branch of ‘Mithaiwala,’ beside Gulshan Unimart. I overall liked the combination of jilapi and rabdi.”
“I don’t like overly sweet stuff, so this kind of jilapi is best for my taste buds. The crunch of the jilapi and the creaminess of the rabri together took it to another level. The rabri was the game-changer here. As it was moderately sweet, it went perfectly with sweet jilapi.”
Gurer jilapi is another common name. The sweet syrup is made with molasses and sugar for this jalebi. It is sweeter than the regular one. It contains the flavour, aroma and taste of molasses.
One unique type of gurer jilapi is ‘Jilapitha’(Jilapi+Pitha), made during occasions. Mohammad Saiful Islam, a journalism graduate from Dhaka University who is currently working with a national English daily, has the privilege to taste this jilapi in his village.
“This jilapi is made during wedding ceremonies. There's a tradition to make varieties of pitha during such occasions, and a kind of jilapi accompanies this tradition sometimes.”
“The jilapi is thick and big, hard and almost dry. You will get its real taste only after you chew it properly, like betel leaves.”
“It tastes a bit sour which makes it appetizing,” Mr Saiful continues narrating, “This jilapi is only made with khejurer gur (molasses made from date) with some aromatic ingredients. It is not much sweet, hence, is an edible option for the old people as well.”
Another type of sweet dish which is similar to jilapi is Amitti/Imarti. Rahman Rattry, a BRAC University undergrad student, tried Amitti while she was in Chittagong.
Amitti. Photo - Rosh
“I had Amitti in a restaurant called Pitshop. It is in Lalkha bazar near WASA. I liked it; it must be eaten hot right after the serving.”
“The shape of it was different from regular jilapi. It was crispy from the outside, soft and juicy from the inside. You can eat it with malai or a sprinkle of white sesame seeds. Mango amitti or chhana amitti is also made. In the local Fair/Mela of Chittagong, you can find Amitti easily.”
The sweet makers of Khulna and Rajshahi are also creative. In Khulna, a local shop called ‘Islamia Mishti Ghor,’ situated on Khalishpur BIDC road, started selling Watermelon jalebi this Ramadan.
They also sell raw mango jalebi. Raw mango jalebi is also getting famous in a local shop near the New Market of Rajshahi called ‘Rosh Golla.’ However, ‘Rosh Golla’ shop has been fined for using artificial colours.
The price range of the jalebi depends on its shape and variations. Local shops sell thick jalebi from 150-200 Tk and thin jilapi from 250-300 Tk per kg.
Some famous branded sweet shops of Dhaka like Premium Sweets, Rosh, Mithai, Mithaiwala sell their jalebi for Tk 400-700/kg. Some famous restaurants like Punjab Kitchen and Dhaka Metro also have this price range.
Some high-end restaurants will cost you 1000-2000 Tk for 1kg of jilapi. The parmesan cheese jalebi of Sadeeq Agro will cost 2700 Tk.
The 5-star hotels such as Amari Dhaka, Westin, Le Meridien serve premium jalebi. These jalebis are more costly because they are deep-fried in pure ghee. They also provide zafran, nuts, malai, rabri as well. They charge 3000-4000 Tk per kg of their jalebi.
The jalebi is a reflection of our shared culture and heritage. The regular ones are our comfort sweet and the unique ones are worth trying occasionally.