On what feels like the hottest day of summer, Veena Irani and I hover over a skillet of hot oil in her Cub Hill kitchen, watching tiny balls of dough bob in the simmering fat. When they brown to the color of nearly burnt toast, Veena scoops them out and drops them into a large pot of sugar syrup strewn with olive green cardamom pods, where they’ll sit overnight absorbing the syrup like fat little sponges.
“You see how easy this is?” she asks. “Should we make another batch?”
“Oh, yes,” I say, and she reaches for the milk powder to begin measuring again.
I’ve been eating Veena’s gulab jaman ever since she brought the sweet dessert and some other delicacies to my family not long after her family moved next door to us in the mid-1970s. It was the first time any of us had tasted food from Pakistan, and while we struggled with the extreme spiciness of the kabobs wrapped neatly in tin foil (they were hot-fragrant-strong and unlike anything I had ever put in my mouth), the gulab jaman only pleased.
The small balls looked familiar— like shiny Dunkin’ Munchkins— and their syrup bath reminded me of loukoumades, the fried dough balls drenched in honey we’d sample at the local festival at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church. But unlike crusty glazed doughnuts, the gulab jaman were soft and squishy and imbued with the syrup that penetrated every bite. A munchkin couldn’t stand a chance against them in a sweetness competition, and even the custard-filled cream puffs with the smear of chocolate icing that Mrs. Hastings, our neighbor on the other side, treated us with occasionally seemed Plain Jane in comparison. I was hooked and throughout my childhood, I looked forward to the plastic container filled with the syrupy sweets that would arrive from next door.
In the years since, I’ve made Indian food in my own kitchen. Armed with my husband’s copy of “Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking” and a slim volume called “30 Minute Indian,” I’ve tackled Bombay-style Chicken with Red Split Lentils and khatte chhole, sour chickpeas. Kheema matar, minced meat with peas, has become almost as much of a standby as hamburgers. And I’ve even induced folks who say they don’t like Indian food (I’m looking at you, Dad) to try garlicky Gujarati Green Beans and ‘Dry’ Okra (OK, I didn’t exactly tell him it was okra; he thought it was zucchini).
But when it came time to make Indian desserts, I balked. Perhaps it was because neither of my cookbooks offered many recipes for sweets beyond rice pudding (which seems like overkill if you have rice with dinner) or because after all the chopping and sautéing to make an Indian meal, a simple, familiar baked custard was about as much dessert as I could muster.
I had never even considered making my own gulab jaman until Veena showed me a booklet of mostly Indian recipes she put together for her daughters when they married. There among the handwritten recipes for “Apple Pickle – Nani’s recipe” and “Sag Gosht (Spinach with Meat)” was Gulab jaman. “They’re very easy,” she confided. “The trickiest part is getting the dough to the right consistency.”
Gulab jaman has only five ingredients: powdered milk, flour, baking powder, butter and water. Though Veena ate them growing up, she never made them until she came to the United States in 1969. Middle-class Pakistani women often didn’t do much cooking at all, she says— there is “help” to do that.
“When we came here, there were not so many Indian places or places to buy ingredients,” Veena explains as she rubs several tablespoons of soft butter into the dry ingredients, her gold bracelets clanking softly against the glass bowl. “Someone from Pakistan would send recipes, and people over here… would pass them around. We learned to make gulab jaman [and other dishes] simply by trial and error.”
By now the mixture in the bowl has become sandy, almost like pie crust, from being worked between Veena’s fingers. She measures out a quarter cup of water and begins adding it sparingly to the mixture, kneading it all the while. It feels just about right when you have to press firmly to hold the dough together.
Mixing the dough is easy, but rolling the dough into balls is more challenging than it looks. You really need to put pressure on it as you roll it between your palms, Veena says, but mine crumbles anyway. She looks at a bumpy ball I’ve eked out, saying, “This won’t look good, but it will still taste good.”
While we roll the dough she tells me that “gulab” is the Urdu word for rose, and that some people use rosewater to flavor the sugar syrup rather than cardamom. “Jaman” (also spelled “jamun”), she says, is an oval-shaped fruit in Pakistan. “When you fry the dough and put it in syrup, the color comes close to that fruit.”
The frying takes only a few minutes, and before long we’re plunging the fried gulab jaman into the syrup Veena made earlier. “They always taste better the next day,” she admonishes, though she probably knows I will sample several before tomorrow. The whole process has taken less than a half-hour.
“Now that you see how easy this is, why do you think people don’t make them?” Veena asks. “Maybe because they don’t have this recipe?”
Now they do.