The story of a famous ‘jalebi’
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This Independence Day, hundreds of Delhiites will round off celebrations with a trip to one of the city’s culinary landmarks. Few will know that at the heart of the long history of the aptly named Old and Famous Jalebi Wala lies a story of Partition.
Over the years, I’ve visited their shop many times. In fact at one point I was such a regular that the Jain family who owns it started inviting me to their house for Sunday brunch. Over many a lavish feast I would quiz them endlessly about the secret of their delicious jalebis. They told me that nobody outside the family had ever been shown the recipe and regaled me instead with tales of the shop’s history.
The Jalebi Wala’s story began almost 150 years ago when a young boy called Nem Chand Jain left his ancestral village near Agra with little more than the 50 paise piece which was the dowry from his seven-year-old wife. Determined to make his fortune in the big city, for many years Nem Chand was an itinerant hawker selling rabri. Eventually, a Muslim trader called Shamsuddin Ifran, who owned a shop on the corner of Dariba Kalan and Chandni Chowk, said he could set up a stall on the pavement outside.
In time, Nem Chand’s jalebi stall made him richer than his landlord, enabling him to build a large haveli for his family in nearby Gali Khazanchi. Today the haveli, a few doors down from the one which belonged to Shah Jahan’s accountants, is crumbling but it is just possible to imagine the splendour in which the family lived. As well as leaking roofs, there are remnants of teak-wood panelling and German mosaic floors. The current owner of the business, Kailash Jain, once told me that his ancestor became so rich that he ran out of places to safely hide his money. He even filled the empty ghee tins with notes and told everyone that the haveli was guarded by snakes.
In the wave of violence between Hindus and Muslims before Partition, Nem Chand hid his benefactor, Shamsuddin, in the haveli for 10 days, protecting him from the mobs. Eventually though, Ifran was forced to flee to Pakistan. Before he left, he gave his Chandni Chowk shop to the man who had sat on the pavement outside for over 40 years. “You saved my life, lalaji,” he said. “You occupy this place.”
Few will know that at the heart of the long history of the aptly named Old and Famous Jalebi Wala is embedded one of the millions of individual tragedies of Partition. The Jains never saw their benefactor again, they don’t even know if he made it to Pakistan safely or was a victim of what writer Nayantara Sahgal recently described as “the unimaginable disaster of bloodshed and suffering that uprooted helpless millions from both sides of the border and still haunts the subcontinent’s memory”. The Jains have never been able to thank Ifran for his part in their good fortune and he has never been able to visit the iconic shop he helped create. But anyone lucky enough to feel the sweet sticky syrup of an Old and Famous jalebi run down his or her chin this Independence Day, should offer up a quiet word of thanks to them both.
By the way, I did eventually piece together some of the secret jalebi recipe. For instance, I gleaned that the jalebi batter is made from 75% white flour and 25% urad dal and that at the end of every day a little of the batter is left in a brass pot to ferment slightly overnight. This process, called khamir uthana, makes the batter airy and slightly tangy. The real magic, they told me, a secret never to be revealed, is how they make the syrup—a process which takes 22 hours—and on that subject I never made any progress.
Makes at least 22
The Old and Famous Jalebi Wala never let me in on their secret recipe but I did piece together a few important details over the years. This lemon-flavoured syrup is completely unorthodox but tastes very good.
110g refined flour (maida)
40g urad dal, ground to a powder
3 cardamom pods
1 large strip lemon zest
Ghee for frying
You will also need a piping bag to pipe the jalebi into the ghee.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, ground urad dal, yogurt and water until you have a smooth batter. Cover the bowl and leave it in a warm place for at least 24 hours. It is important to let the batter ferment slightly; jalebi should have a slight tang.
To make the syrup, put all the ingredients in a pan and boil until the liquid has thickened, reduced by about half.
When you’re ready to fry the jalebis, keep a depth of 4cm ghee in a kadhai (wok) over medium heat. Whisk the batter once more and spoon it into the piping bag. Squeeze neat spirals of the batter into the hot ghee, turning them over a few times until they are golden brown. If they brown too quickly, turn the heat down a little.
With a slotted spoon, remove the crisp jalebis, drain the excess ghee at the side of the pan and transfer straight into the syrup. Toss the jalebis in the syrup and let them soak up some of it. Serve hot.
The Way We Eat Now is a fortnightly column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains.