I was in Istanbul last week (more about that in a later column) and tried to check out the Turkish claim that their cuisine has been copied all over the world. Take, for instance, the Turkish view that the croissant is actually a Turkish bread. I’ve heard many Turkish versions of the story but they all involve a successful conquest of Europe by the Turkish army (Turks are keen to remind you that they once ruled half the known world) whose bakers then invented a special pastry shaped like the Islamic crescent to celebrate the glorious victory.
It is a good story with just the right amount of plausibility about it. But it is also completely false. In The Oxford Companion to Food, the Turkish claim to the croissant is filed away in the section headlined ‘Culinary Mythology’. The story appears to originate in the first edition of the Larousse Gastronomique which states that in 1686, when Budapest was attacked by the Turks, the pastry was created to commemorate the attack. A later version repeats the same story but places it in Vienna in 1683.
And the Turks have other versions: the croissant was invented in Istanbul but travelled to Paris with the Turkish army; the Turks made people in Europe bake the croissant because its crescent shape symbolised the victory of Islam over the infidels, etc.
Same But Different: our version of the jalebi differs from the Middle East original since it tends to be thinner, crisper and less sweet
In fact, the earliest references to a croissant appear in 1863, long after the Turks had departed Europe, and the bread was created by French bakers. Yes, there have been crescent-shaped bakery products in the Muslim world for centuries. But they were pastries filled with dry fruits and sugar and not the buttery flaky bread we call the croissant today.
So it is with Indian cuisine. Talk to Pakistanis about the origins of our shared cuisine (i.e. the food of North India) and they will tell you that it reached the subcontinent from Turkey. After all, ‘pilaf’ is a Turkish word. So is ‘kabab’. ‘Biriani’ is a Farsi word referring to a dish that is shared by Turkey and its neighbour, Iran. And so on.
There is some truth to this. Pilaf did originate in Turkey. So did the kabab. (Though ‘biriani’ does not refer to an Iranian mutton or chicken biryani but just means fried). But eat any of these dishes in Turkey or the rest of the Middle East and you will be surprised by how dull and boring they are. The pilafs/pilavs of West Asia owe their flavour to dry fruits, which is fine if your idea of pulao is dry kheer. The kababs of the Middle East are no more than chunks of recently slaughtered lamb cooked on an open fire. None of these dishes have the finesse of Indian cookery.
The Indian pulao is elevated by our mastery of spices. While the Middle East throws badam, kaju and kishmish into everything, our chefs use our spices to create more sophisticated flavours. So it is with kababs. The tawa kababs of Lucknowi cuisine depend on the sort of subtle spicing which is still alien to the Middle East. Modern-day kababs in India come out of the tandoor rather than the open fires of the Middle East. And our kind of biryani is totally unknown in the kaju-kishmish world of Arab / Turkish / Iranian / North African cookery.
The best way to look at the food of Turkey and the Middle East is to see it as a very rough first draft of the cuisine of North India. When Arab traders brought these dishes to India, we grabbed them, applied our sophisticated cooking skills to them and elevated them to the haute cuisine classics that they now are. It suits Pakistanis to harp on the Middle Eastern origins of pulao and kabab in honour of some mythical pan-Islamic cuisine but the truth is that the cuisine of the Middle East is largely one dimensional and lacks the refinement of Indian food.
The best example of India’s ability to adopt a Middle Eastern dish and to give it a proper upbringing in its new home so that it rises above its kaju-kishmish origins is the jalebi. If you have travelled through Turkey, you will know how hard it is to traverse the streets of Istanbul without being assaulted by powdered sugar. Even if you hide from the kaju-kishmish bombardment, the sugar will always get you in the end. Middle Eastern desserts are so sickly sweet that they make Bengali mithai seem teekha in comparison.
I ate many examples of the Turkish jalebi last week, including one version that was served for breakfast on Turkish Airlines. And I discovered that the Turkish variety is just one of many Middle Eastern expressions of the dish. You find it all over the region under different, but similar, names.
The best article on the subject was written by the eminent editor and foodie Dileep Padgaonkar in The Times of India a couple of years ago. Like me, Dileep checked The Oxford Companion to Food and found that the Iranian jalebi is called the zulubiya and distributed to the poor during Ramzan. In Lebanon, the shape differs but it is basically the same sweet that goes under under the name of zellabiya. In Tunisia it is called z’labia and in much of Arabia it is called zalabiya.
All this would suggest that the jalebi, like kababs and pulaos and samosas, came to us from the Middle East. But there is a view associated with India’s best food historian, the late KT Achaya, which traces the jalebi to South India around six centuries ago. And Dileep quotes a seminal paper by the Indologist PK Gode from Pune’s Bhandarkar Institute written in 1943 in which Gode found a Sanskrit verse which refers to jalebis in a Jain text composed in 1450 AD.
While I yield to none in my admiration of Achaya’s work, he did have a tendency to find references to Islamic dishes in ancient Tamil texts and to then claim that the dishes were indigenous to the sub-continent. When that was not possible, he went as far back as the Indus Valley civilisation to make his point.
Sweeter than A rasgulla: Middle Eastern desserts are so sickly sweet that they make Bengali mithai seem teekha in comparison
But even if the earliest references to jalebis exist in Sanskrit (ie. Hindu or Jain) texts in the 15th century, that does not rule out a Middle Eastern origin for the dish. (To his credit, Achaya does not necessarily dispute this). The Mughals got here in 1526 and by then, parts of India had already been ruled by other Muslim dynasties for many centuries. Contacts between Arab traders and South Indian merchants had begun even earlier.
Far better, therefore, to accept the evidence and recognise that we got the jalebi from the Middle East. But we turned it into the classic Indian sweet that it now is. Our version differs from the Middle East original in that it tends to be thinner, crisper (even the larger imarti has thin whorls shaped to look like a rose) and less sweet. We don’t use yeast which they tend to do in the Middle East. We often use other kinds of batter apart from maida (besan, rava, urad dal, or rice flour) either for binding or as part of the recipe. We are less dependant on honey and rose water (though we may use both) than the Turks. And our jalebis are not as sweet.
The jalebi is now my favourite Indian sweet (it has replaced the shahi tukra in my affections; fickle fellow that I am!) and I tend to judge its quality by the crispness (ie. the calibre of the frying) and the flavour of the syrup. The best jalebis are still the ones that come fresh and hot from the kadhai. A great way to eat them is with the contrasting savoury flavour of the Gujarati gathiya. (Okay, that is a little chauvinistic but as you’ve probably heard a lot recently, six crore Gujaratis cannot be wrong.)
Halwais still make the best jalebis and even five star hotels tend to hire professional halwais to make their jalebis for them in their kitchens. (Catering colleges do not teach people how to fry anything properly). There are nouvelle versions – such as the apple jalebi – which are fun and I personally enjoy adding a dash of Cointreau to the syrup.
But there is still nothing to beat the original jalebi, fried in much the same way as it has been for hundreds of years all over India. Its sophistication, texture and colour remind us of how quickly Indians can take dishes from other parts of the world and make them our own. Our ancestors instantly transformed the Middle Eastern zalabiya into something much more refined. And as their descendants, we have kept that tradition alive.
From HT Brunch, February 3
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