Jalebi (also called jilebi, zulbia, zalabiya, or jilapi) is perhaps the most famous of Indian sweets. Popular throughout the Indian subcontinent, Iran, and especially southern India, this pretzel-like dessert commonly is a compulsory addition to festive tables. It’s popular for day-to-day occasions as well – paired with milk or the creamy rabdi, jalebi makes for a perfect evening snack.
But how come jalebi enjoys such high popularity in Indian cuisine and tradition? Well, the history of jalebi is quite involved – not only that, but the roots of this sweet aren’t what you may be thinking!
More precisely, jalebi actually isn’t Indian but Persian or West Asian, although it is mostly associated with Indian cuisine and culture. This doesn’t really diminish the significance of the sweet in India, but it’s a minor detail that is important to know about.
What Is Jalebi?
Jalebi is known under a variety of names, including but not limited to jilebi, jilapi, or zulbia. And even though we sell this sweet under the name “jilebi”, we will be using “jalebi” to refer to it since it’s the more well-known name.
Jalebi is a crispy pretzel-like sweet that is highly popular throughout the Middle East and South Asia. This sweet is particularly popular in Iran and the Indian subcontinent.
Although jalebi isn’t made exclusively in the pretzel shape, it’s most commonly associated with it. Some people may even call jalebi the Indian pretzel!
Jalebi has many variants and recipes, but probably the most popular recipe is the Indian one. In India, jalebi is typically made by deep-frying all-purpose flour batter and then soaking the latter in sugar syrup.
Even though the pretzel jalebi made with all-purpose flour and sugar syrup is the most common variant of the sweet, there is a fair amount of customization you could do to enhance its flavor. For example, frequent additions to jalebi are rose water and/or lime juice. Thanks to its variability, jalebi can serve as a fine snack at any table and can meet a wide array of gastronomic preferences.
Indian jalebi also has a crispy texture with a sugary exterior coating. These two characteristics make this kind of jalebi stand out among others. Arguably, jalebi from India is the most delicious one as well, though this is up to debate and personal preferences.
The Roots Of Jalebi
As mentioned at the beginning, although jalebi is now strongly associated with Indian cuisine, it actually is not an Indian dish. This sweet is loved by many in the Indian subcontinent, but it has come from elsewhere – from West Asia or Iran.
Prior to its popularization in India, jalebi has been more commonly known as Zolbiya or Zalabiya. Besides, it has been featured in several 10th-century recipe cookbooks. The most famous and accepted recipe of Zalabiya was given in the 13th century by Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi, the author of “Kitab al-Tabeekh” (“The Book of Dishes”).
Back in the 10th-13th centuries, Zalabiya already was a popular festive treat in Iran. It was often given to the poor during Ramadan.
In the early Middle Ages, Zalabiya was introduced to Indian cuisine. The treat arrived in India along with Turkish and Persian invaders. Very soon after its introduction, jalebi became a favorite dish in Indian cuisine.
Our research hasn’t revealed specific reasons for the rapid increase of jalebi’s popularity in India, but it has most likely happened due to its unique appearance and taste. Jalebi is rather easy to make as well, which perhaps is one of the bigger reasons for its popularity.
The name “jalebi” appeared a little later after the arrival of the sweet in India. Up until the 15th century, Indians have called jalebi “Kundalika” or “Jalavallika”. In the 15th century, the name “jalebi” was brought up by the work of Jain author Jinasura “Priyamkarnrpakatha”. Jinasura describes jalebi as a part of festivities and the gatherings of rich merchants.
The sweet has since been called “jalebi” in India. And interestingly, this is the name that this sweet is most known by throughout the world. Not only that, but the Indian version of jalebi is its most famous form in the world.
With all that said, “jalebi” isn’t an Indian word, just like jalebi isn’t an originally Indian sweet – it merely is the Indian pronunciation of the word “Zalabiya”.
The History Of The Jalebi Recipe
The modern recipe of jalebi is simple and rather well-known – as mentioned above, jalebi is made from deep-fried flour soaked in sugar syrup.
The original recipe from West Asia has been a little bit different though – it has used a different kind of batter along with a syrup made from honey and rose water. It’s up to debate which recipe is more delicious, but one thing is certain – Indian jalebi owes its popularity to its unique flavor, texture, and appearance delivered by the recipe.
As it is known nowadays, the recipe of jalebi seems to have first appeared in a 16th-century Sanskrit work titled “Gunyagunabodhini”. The recipe and ingredients mentioned in this scripture are identical to the ones of present-day jalebi.
Without tasting jalebi, the most evident difference of jalebi from its West Asian ancestor is color. Persian Zalabiyas have duller and less eye-catching colors, while Indian jalebis are usually colored in rich yellow or orange. On a festive table, jalebis certainly are more likely to catch your attention.
The taste and texture of the Indian jalebi are also different. Jalebi boasts a crispy texture along with mesmerizing sticky sweetness. The latter probably isn’t good for one’s dental health in the long term, but every once in a while, it shouldn’t be a harmful snack to have.
Jalebi In Indian Cuisine And Tradition
Sweets and dishes in Indian cuisine are commonly associated with specific events and festivals. For example, Adhirasam is often prepared for the Diwali festival, while Mysore Pak is a frequent snack at baby showers.
This appears not to be quite the case for jalebi. As far as our research shows, there are no events or festivities that jalebi is specifically connected with. Instead, jalebi has found its place in a wide range of occasions. This snack is an appropriate and welcome addition to any festive table.
Although the reasons for such omnipresence of jalebi seem not to be covered in historic sources, we’d allow ourselves to assume that this is due to the simplicity of jalebi along with its unique flavor characteristics.
Except for variants of jalebi like imarti and chhena jalebi, you aren’t going to find an Indian snack that can boast similarly captivating texture, taste, and color. With this in mind, if you had only one snack option for an upcoming event, then we’d recommend that you stick to jalebi – truly universal, it pairs excellently with religious or secular occasions alike.
Likewise, jalebi serves as a great side snack to many dishes. It is especially often served along with vegetable curry and kachori in northern areas of the Indian subcontinent, as well as rabri throughout the entire subcontinent.
In north india, there is a variant of Jalebi or Jilebi called Jangiri. Jangiri is similar to Jalebi but tastes different. It is made out of urad dhal and juicy sugar syrup and the jangiri flour is not allowed to ferment. Also, shape of Jangiri is more like a flower pattern.
Jalebi In Other Countries
It probably wouldn’t be a stretch to say that jalebi is most popular among Indians – this is due to their sheer number throughout the world. However, jalebi is loved well beyond India, especially given that it has come from abroad.
Below is a list of some countries where jalebi is particularly popular.
- Iran. Probably the homeland of jalebi, Iran cannot be left out of this list. As said above, the Iranian jalebi is made with honey and rose water syrup. Apart from that, Iranian jalebi is often flavored with saffron and served as a dessert along with tea, as well as during the Persian New Year (Nowruz) and Ramadan.
- Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and other Arab countries. The jalebi recipe in Arab countries also is a little bit different– local jalebi is made with flour, yeast, sugar/honey, and yogurt. Cardamom is often added as well.
- Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, the snack is known as “jilapi” and is an essential addition to dishes and beverages, particularly tea.
This list isn’t even remotely comprehensive – jalebi is also popular in Turkey, Egypt, Nepal, and a number of other states. And notably, pretty much in every country where jalebi is popular, the sweet has a distinct name and recipe. At some point, these other recipes may be worth a try as well, but as the first recipe, the Indian jalebi is perhaps the go-to option.
We can’t say that jalebi is one-of-a-kind sweet in Indian cuisine – you can find many other snacks and dishes that are likewise suitable for pretty much any festive table. However, jalebi’s flavor and appearance make it very distinct from other Indian sweets and desserts.
If you’ve never tried jalebis, it’s not a guarantee that you will like them. However, given jalebi’s popularity and place in Indian culture, it’s certainly worth at least a try.
When setting your next festive table, strongly consider adding jalebi to your menu. Not only that, but know that jalebi can serve as a great addition to an Indian sweet box – whether alone or paired with other Indian sweets.