Combinations of strong and aromatic flavors like cardamom, turmeric or saffron characterize India’s extraordinary cuisine. It’s distinct and rich taste has made it popular with people all around the world. On the menus of specialized restaurants, you will find a huge variety of dishes that Westerners would define as Indian curry, from Tandoori Chicken to Lamb Vindaloo. Surprisingly, what hasn’t gained a lot of attention beyond India’s borders, are the country’s mouth-watering desserts. A real pitty considering that the distinct aromas make for delicious sweet treats that are without equal around the globe. For that very reason, we are presenting you one of the most traditional treats: Gulab Jamun.

Gulab Jamuns are deep-fried balls of dough soaked in a syrup of rose and cardamom. A topping of chopped pistachios and almonds add a special touch. The little spheres are surely amongst India’s most popular sweets. You will hardly find anybody in the whole country who doesn’t love the simple and cheap-to-make candy. And for that reason, you will always be close to a street vendor who sells the beloved deliciousness.

Now, if you have a very sweet tooth, we need to mention that you could get addicted to Gulab Jamuns after the very first bite. After all, the balls of dough have soaked up a lot of sugary liquid over several hours. No doubt, you will feel like in heaven – be it from the aromatic flavors or simply the intense sugar rush. But even if you aren’t the greatest lover of sweet stuff, you should at least give them a try. Maybe just don’t pop a whole ball into your mouth at once. And if you won’t end up liking the taste, Gulab Jamuns are still a great way of getting your blood sugar levels up if you need an immediate boost.

Where Does Gulab Jamun Come From?

The traditional dessert was first prepared in India in medieval times. Turkic invaders had brought a fritter to the country which served as a model for the shiny spheres. Rumor has it that Gulab Jamun, as we know it today, was actually an accidental invention. Allegedly, the personal chef of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan created them by coincidence. If only he knew how many million people he is making happy today with his simple creation.

Gulab Jamun: traditional Indian sweets with milky dough and rosewater-cardamom-syrup. Often found as street food

Over the centuries, Gulab Jamun has become hugely popular across the country. Together with other mouth-watering sugary treats, they are a staple at Indian celebrations like Diwali or Holi, today. But they don’t just make an appearance on such great national events. You will find Gulab Jamun at any kind of Indian party, be it a birthday, wedding or any other festive occasion. And there popularity doesn’t stop there. While Gulab Jamuns are considered a typical Indian delicacy, they can also be found in neighboring countries like Bangladesh or Pakistan. To our surprise, they have even made it as far as Jamaica. Outside of India, you will find the little balls by somewhat different names, though, such as Gulab Jaman, Lal Mohan or Gulabjam.

That leaves us with one open question: what does the name mean? The Persian expression gulāb is a composition of the words “flower” and “water” which refers to the rosewater that finds use as flavoring in the syrup. The second part, Jāmun, is the Hindi word for Syzygium jambolanum, also known as black plum. It is a fruit native to India that is similar in size and shape to the sweet balls. Thus, it also explains the use of its name. While both parts are a reference to the sweet’s original and most common composition, there is a wide variety with different flavors and also appearances today.

The Secret Behind Making Gulab Jamuns

Traditional Gulab Jamun is made with “dried milk”. For the so-called Khoya, milk is boiled and thereby reduced until only white solids are left. It has basically the consistency of a very soft dough. Making Khoya is an hours-long process that involves steady stirring. A tedious task that many Indians nowadays rather avoid by getting Khoya straight from the supermarket. Outside of the country, Khoya can sometimes be found in the freezer section of Indian supermarkets or grocery stores.

 

How To Make Gulab Jamuns At Home

For people who haven’t made Gulab Jamun before, the perfectly round, shiny balls might look a bit intimidating to make at home. However, it is quite the contrary if you stick to some easy principles. And this simplicity is also what makes the traditional sweet such a great fingerfood at buffets. .Well, at least in India where you can easily get ready-to-use ingredients.

Proper Khoya might not be easily available where you live and you may not have the time to boil milk for hours. Gladly, there is an easy fix for that. Our recipe below makes use of powdered milk. A comfortable alternative that is not quite like the original to be fair, but more than decent. Another good news is that you also won’t have to worry about getting an unauthentic result. Nowadays, it is actually a common way of substituting traditional Khoya in India as well. Other modern recipes even call for Paneer, a traditional Indian cottage cheese, as the dairy ingredient.

So for your next party or any kind of festive occasion, surprise your guests with some mouth-watering Gulab Jamuns. The traditional Indian treat will satisfy even the sweetest tooth. And if you are intrigued but don’t want to make them yourself, you might be lucky enough to find Gulab Jamuns in an Indian or Pakistani grocery store somewhere near you. Even though, online might be your best bet in this case.

 

Gulab Jamun

Yield: 20-25 balls

Gulab Jamun: typical dessert form India. Donut-like balls drowned in a rosewater or cardamom syrup

Ingredients

    For the syrup:
  • 500 ml water
  • 300 g sugar
  • 1 tbsp rosewater
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • Pinch of saffron threads
    For the dough:
  • 70 g flour
  • 180 g milk powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cardamom powder
  • 150 ml milk
  • 20 g butter/ghee
  • 2 tbsp coconut flakes
    For frying:
  • 1 l oil

Instructions

  1. For the syrup, heat up water together with sugar, rosewater, cardamom pods and saffron threads in a pot until it boils. Then let it simmer for 5-6 minutes only. It might look very runny and not like proper syrup yet but this is how it is supposed to be. If the syrup is too viscous, the balls won't soak it up. As it cools down, the syrup will then get more solid
  2. Mix flour, milk powder, cardamom powder and baking soda in a large bowl. Warm up the milk together with the butter/ghee and pour it over the flour mix. Knead everything well to create a smooth dough that still sticks slightly to the hands. Cover the bowl and let the dough rest for about 15 minutes
  3. Besprinkle your hands with some flour and gently form small balls without putting too much pressure on the dough. The size should be slighter smaller than a table tennis ball
  4. Make sure that there are no cracks in the dough balls. Otherwise knead and roll one more time. Place the little spheres on a sheet of baking paper
  5. Heat up the oil in a large pot or pan at 170°C and then slight reduce the heat. Drop the balls into the oil in small batches
  6. Fry at medium heat for 1-2 minutes for the Gulab Jamuns to cook evenly on the inside while also staying soft on the outside. The balls are done when they turn a dark golden brown
  7. Take out the fried balls and let them drain on a piece of kitchen roll before soaking them in the syrup. Make sure the syrup is still warm (but not hot!), so that the Gulab Jamuns keep their shape and can best absorb the sugary liquid
  8. Let the balls soak in the syrup for about 24 hours. Keep the container covered and turn the Gulab Jamuns once in a while


Similar to:

Rasgulla from India
Loukoumades from Greece
Lokma from Turkey

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Photo by Kaustubh Naik

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