Ambalika leans over the cauldron, her face shining from sweat. Her tongue is firmly between her slightly parted lips and furrows deepen on her brow. She knows that if she does not watch over the sugary concoction it will burn. She stirs the boiling syrup, every fibre taut with concentration.
“Guess what we’re having after dinner?” ten-year-old Maya asks. I sniff the cardamom infused air.
“Is it something sweet?” I reply. She grins.
“Yes, come and see! Amba-di is making gulab jamun because you are here!” She drags me into the Stygian kitchen. A grimy window is the only source of light but Ambalika needs no illumination to perform her task. She has been this Agra family’s cook for three decades, fed every baby, taught every new bride, and nourished the household with her dishes. She is not blood related, but she is family, slaving over the fastidious tastes of each member, fiddling with handed down formulas for health and well-being. Each scratch on the floor is known to her. This is her kingdom and her word is law here. Ambalika looks up from her pot, eyes angry at the interruption.
“What are you troublemakers doing here,” she asks suspiciously, “don’t you have somewhere to be?”
“We just want to watch,” I tell her, “we won’t bother you.” The promise is a placation she does not accept.
“Shoo! Get out of here, crazies! Don’t you know this takes time and hard work? I can’t be bothered with you.”
“But, we want to watch you make the gulab jamun,” Maya says.
“Tsk, tsk, watching never accomplished anything. Go! Don’t disturb me. I have work to do and you’ll make me spoil the process.”
Maya and I tiptoe to the door but we do not leave. We lurk in the shadows, fascinated as Ambalika pours the contents of a blush colored bottle into the syrup. The perfume of a thousand Arabian rose gardens emanates from the steam. We edge closer as she transforms ghee and powder into dough, patiently ladling and kneading, watchful over every change in the malleable mixture. There are no measuring cups or teaspoons or graduated implements; Ambalika’s eyes calculate every portion, her heart knows the recipe.
The oil spatters over her wrists but she remains vigilant, strainer hovering over the puffed ecru balls ready to rescue them the moment they turn brunette. Maya and I neglect the waning of the day. This dusky chamber of crackling stove and bubbling water has become our world. We have convinced ourselves Ambalika has forgotten our presence. We sidle closer to the trestle table as she soaks the sweetmeats in their viscid bath. She chops pale green pistachios, her fingers flying from the blurred edge of the attacking knife. A few nut morsels sail in our direction and we snatch at them, greedily sneaking them into our mouths.
“How very exciting,” Maya’s mother says to me, her eyes alight with amusement. “This must be a very special occasion because Amba-di has made her outstanding gulab jamun!” Maya and I squeal in delight as if genuinely surprised but we exchange sly glances, cradling our mutual secret kitchen rendezvous. The brass basin gets passed around, the mahogany dumplings wading in their honeyed pool. I pop one in my mouth and it bursts with love. All those ingredients —the sugar, the milk powder, the sliced nuts — transform into the elements by which we experience Ambalika’s affection for us.
Love is built upon various foundations but the key component is always time. Emperor Shah Jahan erected an elegy to his beloved on moonlit marble, dancing calligraphy, and time. It took him twenty years to complete his love song, the Taj Mahal. Ambalika stuffs her passion inside each spongy spherule, nurturing it until perfection. Her poetry is the sliver of gold leaf centered upon the individual plump gulab jamun. We devour her devotion with every mithai, savoring her dedication to our happiness. We honor her sweat and her burned hands and her time as we grab more than our allotted share. Ambalika watches from the corner of the room, fanning herself and smiling, as she listens to us quibble over the last succulent piece.
BT’s GULAB JAMUN RECIPE
Serves 5-10 Total Time: 1 hour [30 minutes preparation; 30 minutes cooking]
WHAT YOU NEED
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
4 teaspoons rose-water
½ teaspoon green cardamom, crushed
2 teaspoons almond slivers
1 cup milk powder
⅓ cup maida*
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup liquid milk
1 Tablespoon ghee
Ghee for deep-frying
WHAT TO DO
- Add the sugar and water to a medium-sized pot and place over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves.
- Add the crushed cardamom and bring entire mixture to a boil. Continue stirring so that the brew doesn’t skim.
- Boil the syrup for 3-5 minutes or until the syrup has thickened.
- Pour the thickened syrup through a sieve into a large bowl. Add the rose-water, stir to mix well, and allow syrup to sit at room temperature.
- Mix the milk powder, baking soda, and maida in a large bowl.*
- Add 1 tablespoon of ghee to the dry blend and, with your fingers, gently coat the powder until it is moist.
- Add the liquid milk, a little at a time, continuing to gently combine it into the powder mixture with your fingers until a soft, sticky dough forms. Do not knead as this will harden the dough. Once dough is made, cover it with a damp cloth and allow it to sit for 5 minutes.
- Grease your palms and fingers with some ghee, then form pebble-sized round balls out of the dough. Make sure that no cracks appear on the ovoids and do not make them too large in size as they will enlarge after soaking in the syrup. You should be able to create 18-24 jamun orbs.
- Place the dough globes on a cookie sheet and cover with a damp cloth.
- In a deep fry pan heat the rest of the ghee over medium heat for 10 minutes or until the oil is at a temperature of 360 – 375 ℉ (182 – 191 ℃). There should be enough ghee in the pan to completely cover the dough ovoids. If you do not have a thermometer, you can test the oil by dropping a small spherule of dough into it. If the spherule sinks, the oil is not hot enough, if the spherule turns brown and pops up quickly the oil is too hot.
- While the ghee is heating, return the syrup to a pot and set it over low heat in order to warm it. Do not let the syrup boil or get too hot. Once the syrup is rewarmed, pour it into a bowl large enough to hold all the jamun. Keep the bowl near the frying pan.
- Slowly place 4-5 dough balls into the hot oil. If the pan gets too crowded, place less at a time. Using a slotted spoon, roll the spheres gently in the oil so that all sides brown evenly, while ensuring they do not split apart. Fry the dough balls for 4-6 minutes or until they are golden brown.
- Remove the fried jamun from the oil with the slotted spoon and immediately transfer them to the warm syrup bowl. Allow them to rest in the syrup for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
- Serve 2-4 warm gulab jamuns in ramekins with slivered almonds and a tablespoon of syrup poured on top.
* BT Tip: Maida is a milled flour made out of bleached wheat. You can use pastry flour as a substitute.