Plump and spongy deep-fried balls soaked in a fragrant sugar syrup, gulab jamuns are a classic South Asian dessert often a fixture on restaurant menus and on holiday tables. Eaten in one bite after a meal, holidays like Diwali (the festival of lights for Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains) also offer the perfect excuse to indulge in the nostalgic sweet treat and its many variations.
Culinary historians believe gulab jamun is related to the Greek doughnut, loukoumades, its Middle Eastern cousin, lokma, and its Persian counterpart, balushahi. While both the loukoumades and lokma use eggs to make a fritter and sweeten it with honey, balushahi uses a yeast-based dough later drenched in sugary rose water post frying.
While there are umpteen recipes for making sweet gulab jamuns from scratch, including tried-and-true immigrant amma hacks using pancake mix, Indian grocery stores carry a plethora of batched mixes and large cans of ready-to-eat gulab jamuns and kala jamuns. Many restaurant owners park canned gulab jamuns at the end of buffets, too, as a simple dessert solution. This provides visibility, helping make the sweet treat popular among Americans unfamiliar with the South Asian dessert.
The long evolution of gulab jamun
A 17th-century Mughal cookbook, the Nuskha-E-Shahjahani, includes a recipe for a balushahi with a dough created from flour, yogurt, water, and ghee (clarified butter) shaped into small diskettes. It’s fried in ghee and drizzled with a sugar syrup. The confection is firm, like a flaky fried cookie. This concept of a leavened dough bite, fried, and sweetened with a saccharine syrup, is the likely pre-colonial precursor to gulab jamun.
Colonial influences to the present-day gulab jamun came from the Portuguese (post-16th century) who introduced Bengali confectioners or Miṣṭānna to the versatility of a fresh cheese, known as chenna (Think soft, crumbly cheese.) Using vinegar to curdle milk created a soft creamy chenna. Nabin Chandra Das first mass-produced rasgulla in 1861 – a spongy confection of milk curds converted into little white globes, cured in boiling water rather than frying, and steeped in a fragrant sticky syrup.
The word “gulab” refers to rose, and hints at the aromatic properties of rose water, which perfumes the sweet syrup. The word “jamun” refers to a purplish seasonal berry beloved across India. Gulab jamun is made by combining all-purpose flour, baking powder, and khoya or mawa and binding it into a soft dough using milk. The dough is kneaded until smooth and divided into small balls and fried in hot ghee until they are golden brown and float to the top. The fried dough balls are dunked immediately into a warm sugar syrup infused with cardamom, saffron, and rose water.
Some confectioners add sugar to the dough, which caramelizes during frying to give it a deep brown exterior and a golden interior. The dough is drenched in a sugar syrup and becomes known as kala jamun or a black jamun. In parts of Rajasthan, fried balls of unsweetened dough are submerged into a savory tomato-based sauce instead of the sugary syrup.
Sometimes both kala jamun and gulab jamuns are stuffed with khoya before frying, as a nod to its origins. In addition to the balushahi, cousins of gulab jamun are found in marketplaces across India, including ledikeni and pantua, particularly in West Bengal.
The popularity of rasgullas led to pantua — balls of chenna with a pinch of flour, fried in ghee, and soaked in a cardamom and saffron syrup. Pantua is midway between a balushahi and rasgulla and influenced a new dish called ledikeni. It’s named for the wife of the governor-general of India, Charles Canning, a British colonist who was in office from 1856 to 1862. Created by local sweet shop Bhim Chandra Nag in honor of Lady Canning’s birthday, confectioners made a dough using more flour than chenna and converted it into elongated morsels. The dough was then fried in ghee and soaked in syrup.
Elsewhere in India, the elongated shape of ledikeni changed into a more rounded form, and the chenna was replaced with uncurdled milk solids, also known as khoya or mawa. The proportion of flour to dairy continued to increase over the years, with the source of sponginess becoming baking powder. The resulting dish is now known as gulab jamun.
Where to find gulab jamun in Atlanta
Most Indian and South Asian restaurants serve gulab jamun or variations on the dessert, including several restaurants and sweets shops across metro Atlanta. Here’s where to find some great versions of gulab jamun to try around Atlanta.
130 Perimeter Center Place, Dunwoody
Gulab jamun can be served at room temperature or warmed up slightly before serving. It can also be served as part of a rich layered dessert called rabadi, as rabadi gulab jamun, almost like a parfait. Try this version of gulab jamun at Hyderabad House in Dunwoody after enjoying a selection of the restaurant’s many robust and flavorful biryanis.
Multiple Atlanta locations
Curry Up Now in Alpharetta, Reynoldstown, and Decatur serve gulab jamuns with a scoop of kulfi ice cream, naming the dish Hot Balls on Ice. Curry Up Now serves a variety of biryani and thali platters, as well as takes on tikka masala, chicken or paneer naan called “Naughty Naan”, and “Sexy Fries”, a variant of poutine made with sweet potatoes and topped with cheese and a choice of protein.
4646 Buford Highway, Chamblee; 100 Luckie Street, Atlanta
In countries like Nepal and Bangladesh, gulab jamun is referred to as lal mohan, this includes on the menus at Purnima Bangladeshi on Buford Highway and Aamar Indian Cuisine in downtown Atlanta.
Patel Plaza, 1707 Church Street, Decatur; 4315 Abbotts Bridge Road, Duluth
In addition to traditional kala jamun and gulab jamun, both locations of this Indian sweets shop sell kala jamun (or malai jam) split down the center and topped with a thin layer of cream. Additionally, Gokul Sweets carries coconut-dusted kala jamun and gulab jamun stuffed with nuts and chenna sliced into rounds showcasing the colorful centers.
Patel Plaza, 1685 Church Street, Decatur
Some confectioners slice individual gulab jamuns in half and then spread a layer of decadent cream between halves before sandwiching the pieces back together. Royal Sweets sells individual gulab jamun sandwiches and in packs of four.
Online; Johns Creek
This Indian bakery-cafe is in between spaces right now, as the owners look for a new location to reopen. But for Diwali, Pot Bharoon created gulab jamun as cupcakes and cheesecakes, which people can order via Instagram for pick up in Johns Creek.
Nandita Godbole is a cookbook author and freelance writer who divides her time between Atlanta and Los Angeles. In her cookbook, “Masaleydaar: Classic Indian Spice Blends”, she explores the foodways of India’s diverse spice blends, and is using her biophilic pottery in its food photography to showcase the ties between India’s regional cuisines and its local ecologies.