Rajpurohit Bhanwar Singh is not a man you would expect to find wandering the lanes of Mumbai, but that’s where I met him, churning out Mumbai’s best paneer jalebis for Gangaur at Juhu Shopping Center. Now paneer jalebis aren’t your tappori roadside stuff; we’re talking rolaty here with paneer, khoya, milk. and saffron all lined up. Crisp on the outside, but much juicier inside – this one’s a totally different taste and texture experience. Other sweetshops (like the disappointing Tiwari’s next door) make paneer Jalebis too, but Gangaur’s fat juicy crisp versions are distinctly better. Royal priest and all that…
This is not the first time I’ve had paneer jalebis, but the variety I grew quite literally fat on was at Kharagpur’s Tech Market. The Bongs will have no truck with paneer, so we would call it chhanar jilipi. Unlike the regular flour jalebis, or even the paneer-milk versions of Gangaur (the sweetshop has strong Kolkata roots, by the way) – these are more like gulab jamuns made all squiggly, in taste, texture and look. At Tech Market, each one-rupee jilipi was the size of a small fist, enough to turn even the most resilient sixpack to jelly in days.
Mumbai is full of jalebiwallas, but most struggle to rise even slightly above average. Here, they’re thicker, sweeter, more chewy, an evening snack to be had after lunch or when leaving office. I miss the crisp, brown, early-morning jilipis of Kolkata, perfect for pairing up with rich mishti doi. The jewellers of Zaveri Bazaar do like their ancestors did in Gujarat, and faithfully pair their savoury breakfast fafdas with small, crunchy, yellow jalebis from Pancharatna or the 113yr old Mumbadevi Jalebiwalla. Fountain Caterers fed me a killer, saffron-loaded Kesar Jalebi at my birthday party, and I’ve written earlier about the fat, crisp, dark brown offerings of the very popular JJ Jalebiwallah. Delhi has its Old & Famous Jalebiwala, though I admit I’ve never actually been there done that, while UP takes things to a different level altogether with its imartis.
If you thought that the ubiquitous Jalebi was a fun but pedestrian Indian sweet, think again. As the thirteenth century “Zlabia” it finds mention in ancient Persian cookbooks. Zlabia (or zlebia, zalabia, zalabiya or any one of its numerous alternate spellings) is well known in North Africa and the Middle East (though not always in the swiggly, baby-finds-crayons shape that is so familiar to us). Fried, orange and syrup are common factors – details vary from place to place – honey instead of sugar syrup, yeast, saffron, nuts, et al. And then there’s the American connection - a bit of side trivia on the zalabia is its association with the origins of the ice cream cone in America.