If you were even given a bag of Divali treats, it’s more than likely you’ve had a conversation about Gulab Jamun and Rasgulla, two well-known and well-loved Indian sweets that are favorites in gift bags of that variety. People have been debating the names of these two sweets around Trinidad & Tobago for a while now, yet you don’t need to go too far down the rabbit hole to realize you probably might not get a solid, conclusive solution to this name conundrum beyond the fact that none of these sweets is officially named Fat Kurma. Understanding that the religious element tied into these dishes makes it easy for anybody to share information that could burn the Parasad, it seemed wise to just start a conversation about these two sweets and see if somewhere along the line some helpful info pops up.
What Are These Things Anyway?
Just in case you don’t know what we’re talking about, one of these dishes is a firm, milk-based ball, that’s fried to create a slightly crispy golden brown crust, around a soft interior. These golden orbs of goodness are then left to soak in a bath of simple syrup.
By Cabeza2000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
The other is… well… a firm, milk-based, almond-shaped treat, that’s fried to create a slightly crispy golden brown crust, around a soft interior. These golden bites of goodness are then drizzled in a shower of simple syrup and sometimes dusted with a lil extra milk powder.
If reading that felt repetitive, it’s because outside of some recipes calling for ghee, some calling for butter, grated ginger instead of pureed ginger, soaking in syrup instead of drizzling with syrup and a juggling of the spices used, both dishes seem to use vary similar ingredients and processes to achieve very similar results. Maybe that’s part of what caused the confusion in the first place? Outside of some textures due to soaking vs drizzling and one or two spices, the difference between the two sweets seem really small.
What Do the Names Mean?
A good place to look for answers in instances like these is in language. Sometimes the name of a dish might have clues to what it actually is. Like how Bake & Shark lets you know it’s a BAKE… filled with SHARK. Not the same as Shark & Bake, which is two slices of shark sandwiching a bake. But we digress.
Some sources say Rasgulla translates from Hindi to mean “syrup filled roll”. That definitely speaks to soaking the treat in syrup, but the roll part is kinda shaky. Roll can mean the action of rolling, which doesn’t have to result in a ball. The torpedo shape is derived from rolling as well, so that part works for both the ball and the almond shape.
Some sources also say Rasgulla is a combination of two words; ras, which means sugar syrup and gulla, which comes from gol and means round. It doesn’t say filled with syrup, but close enough. And this time it actually says round.
Now don’t get too comfortable thinking we’re getting somewhere. Gulab Jamun is another combination of words. This time, some Persian comes into the mix with Gulab, which means rose water; a nod to the sweet syrup the treats soak in. Jamun is Hindi and references the berry of that same name, which is round and similar in colour to what the sweet looks like when properly made. In other words, both names reference sweet syrup, round and rolling. Works for either one.
Who Calls Them by The Names We Know?
A good thought to have is, maybe it’s about who the sweets came with and from where? But asking around the local landscape, the same names for both sweets are used by everybody across the board. Added to that, the only instances of any name conflict online seem to be mostly on Trinbagonian videos that say Trini Rasgulla/Gulab Jamun to refer to the balls soaked in syrup, or the reverse for the finger shaped treat. Almost everybody else calls the balls Gulab Jamun. Once again, no real leads here. Just looks like it’s a T&T thing.
Does It Matter?
As mentioned earlier, these sweets play an important part in religious celebrations, so they matter from that perspective. However, does it really matter what we call them? Because it kinda seems like these two sweets are so similar in preparation and results that both names fit comfortably.
Maybe the passion that comes with religion and tradition, escalated the debate to high levels. But in the realm of food, how different is Kitchri from a moist split peas and rice cook up? Maybe it’s even less of an issue than all the versions of Callaloo that follow similar styles using a different green leafy ingredient.
Probably it’s the same as using the name Float for lighter Fry Bakes and for denser Fry Bakes since they all float to the top when they’re finished? The names really seem interchangeable and probably meant to be used by the maker to identify which processes they used more than anything else.
Either way, we hope your Divali is filled with Gulab Jamun and Rasgulla that are delicious, satisfying and bring you all the joy that these classic Indian sweets always bring to this festive celebration. And if you happen to know the deal with the names of these two traditional sweets, feel free to join the conversation with your knowledge.