In every culture there are foods so addictive that merely talking about them evokes sighs and longing. Think of warm, gooey, fudge brownies, or fresh, fat cookies bursting with chocolate chips or vanilla ice cream drowned in chocolate sauce or crunchy, syrup-laden Jalebis.
Jalebis? Sorry, without warning we skipped half a world away to India, where the treats are different but equally powerful in their allure. An Indian now living in Southern California recalled how, as a child in Calcutta, he would take any pittance of money to the sweet shop, buy Jalebis and gorge on them until he became sick. As an adult he would do the same thing, he admitted.
To make Jalebis, batter is swirled in circles into a pan of hot oil. When golden and crisp, the lacy pastries are plunged into syrup. This sudden contact makes them swell to absorb the syrup so that when you bite into them, they release what seems like liquid perfume.
There are Indian sweet shops in Southern California that sell Jalebis. But for a short time it was possible to taste Jalebis that came almost directly from India. They were gorgeous examples of the genre, oozing syrup that tasted of roses and saffron, sparkling with flakes of edible silver leaf.
These Jalebis were made by Chandar Bhan Tiwari, one of a team of chefs from India who guest-cooked at the Sheraton Premiere Hotel. Tiwari's specialty is Indian sweets, which he prepares for the Maurya Sheraton Hotel in New Delhi.
The team brought many of their ingredients with them, including the costly silver leaf that decorated the pastries. In New Delhi, the leaf costs about $40 for 1 1/2 ounces, said Richard A. Graham, corporate executive chef for the Welcomgroup chain of hotels in India and spokesman for the group. Another extravagance was the saffron added to the syrup. The price in India for 3 grams, which is approximately one-third of an ounce, would be about $9, Graham said. The syrup was also flavored with rose attar, an Indian product so strong that only a drop was needed.
Tiwari's Jalebis had a faint, yeasty sour taste, produced by fermentation. The batter requires two types of flour, ordinary white or all-purpose flour and gram flour, which is made from garbanzo beans. Water and baking soda are added, and the mixture then stands for three days.
Tiwari did not use a commercial pastry bag to pump the batter into the oil but a handstitched bag fashioned from a double layer of cloth. A commercial pastry bag would exert too much pressure, forcing the batter through too quickly, Graham said.
Like making pie shells and cakes, making Jalebis requires practice. In testing Tiwari's procedure, we found a pastry bag with a 1/3-inch opening works adequately. However, it takes dexterity to ladle the batter into the bag while holding the end closed. Rose flavoring from a local Indian store gave the syrup a delightful aroma. As Graham cautioned, the saffron must not be added until the last moment, for its flavor evaporates quickly.
A beginner's Jalebis may not be perfect, but continued attempts will improve the results. Here is Tiwari's recipe. JALEBIS
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 cup garbanzo bean flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups water
Rose and Saffron Syrup
Oil for deep-frying
Combine flours and baking soda. Add water and beat vigorously until smooth. Mixture should be consistency of thick pancake batter. Let stand at room temperature 72 hours. Just before frying jalebis, make syrup and cool to room temperature.
In large skillet heat oil 1 inch deep to 375 degrees. Ladle some of batter into pastry bag with opening about 1/3 inch in diameter. Squeeze batter through hole into oil in pretzel-like rings or figure 8s. Or make chain of jalebis, allowing 3 rings for each and moving on to next without breaking jalebis apart. Fry slowly until golden brown. Remove jalebis from oil. Place immediately in syrup and let soak 5 minutes. Drain and place on serving platter. Makes about 32 (3-inch) jalebis. Rose and Saffron Syrup
4 cups sugar
3 cups water
1 teaspoon rose flavoring
5 to 6 threads saffron
Combine sugar and water in large saucepan. Bring to boil and boil until syrup forms single thread when dropped from spoon, 230 degrees on candy thermometer. Add rose flavoring. Cool to room temperature. Stir in saffron just before using.