Goulabjamoun is a sweet potato fritter enjoyed in Zambia. But this exotic sounding recipe was first created hundreds of years ago in a land far from Zambia.
The history of goulabjamoun can be traced across the Indian Ocean to India. From there, the origin story of this sweet potato treat leads us to medieval Baghdad.
This doughy delight is a descendant of one of the world’s oldest known desserts, a dessert which many consider to be the ancestor of various popular desserts today.
Goulabjamoun: Luqmat al-Qādī, Gulab Jamun, and the Astonishing Journeys of Sweet Potatoes
When mothers in Zambia prepare goulabjamoun for their little ones, they are putting a spin on a recipe that was first written down nearly one thousand years ago.
First popular in Baghdad, the recipe travelled with invaders to India, before crossing an ocean with British colonialists to arrive in Africa.
Luqmat al-Qādī: Judge’s Morsels
Peering back through ages of this recipe’s history, we first arrive in Baghdad in the thirteenth century.
At the time, Baghdad was the capital city of the Abbasid caliphate. Baghdad was a center of learning, culture and, apparently, prolific desserts.
So it should be no surprise that local chefs were writing down their delicious creations in recipe books to preserve them for future generations. The recipe for Lumqat al-Qādī called for frying little balls of dough, dipping them in a sweet syrup and dusting them with sugar.
In Arabic Lumqat al-Qādī means “judge’s morsels.” Judges in the Abbasid caliphate were revered for their high social standing in society, so these delectable fried treats were so named because they were considered a delicacy worthy of a judge’s palate. It must have been good to be a judge in Baghdad in those days!
In the fourteenth century Lumqat al-Qādī reappeared in another cookbook. But by this time, innovation was afoot. In this version of the recipe the dough was kneaded with rosewater.
The addition of rosewater to the recipe for Lumqat al-Qādī is the first step on its journey to becoming Goulabjamoun. Lumqat al-Qādī travelled to Persia by way of the Mongol invaders who ruled Baghdad and modern day Iran in the fifteenth century.
Once our magnificent little morsel was introduced to Persia, the people there both adapted and adopted the recipe. And then, a mere three hundred or so years later, this fritter was on its way to India, where it would take on a new identity.
Gulab Jamoun Begets Goulabjamoun
Like all good desserts, fried dough dipped in rose water was destined to cross borders and find its way onto dessert plates in distant lands. And that is exactly what it did.
In the eighteenth century Nadir Shah became the ruler of the Persian empire. As was the seeming custom for new empirical rulers, he decided that the time was ripe to invade some new lands and grow his territory.
Persian forces began advancing to the Southeast across Afghanistan and into the Hindu Kush mountains. And what do you think their bakers were making them to celebrate their victories? Our delightful little Lumqat al-Qādīs.
When the people of India were introduced to this new confection, they adopted the Persian name gulab – Farsi for flower water – for the rosewater the dough was dipped in after frying. Because of their plum shape, the fried balls were also called jamun, and so the famous Indian dessert gulab jamun came to be in the 18th century.
Gulab Jamun is still a very popular treat in India. It is likely that at some point during the height of British colonialism the confection crossed the Indian Ocean and arrived in Africa. This remarkable dessert was adopted into the cuisine of multiple countries once it arrived on the continent.
One such country to take it in and put their own spin on it was Zambia. The name was altered slightly from gulab jamun to goulabjamoun, and the recipe itself also evolved to include sweet potatoes.
The Nautical Adventures of Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes were, much like the goulabjamoun recipe, introduced to Zambia via European colonialists.
Sweet potatoes originated in Central and Southern America, where they were first cultivated by local inhabitants and cooked into what was probably some extremely delicious dishes. They were discovered by European explorers, who brought them back to Europe and later distributed them around the world. The Portuguese are often considered the catalysts that brought sweet potatoes to Africa during their period of intervention on the continent.
But, some four hundred years before the first European set foot in South America, sweet potatoes had already crossed an ocean. There is increasing evidence that shows that Polynesians crossed the Pacific Ocean and made landfall in South America in 1100 AD.
The proof is that sweet potatoes cultivated in the Pacific Islands are genetically similar to the sweet potatoes growing in South America from the same time period. Additionally, there are ancient remnants of sweet potatoes to be found in Polynesia.
But how did the Polynesians travel 5,000 miles across an ocean to arrive in South America? The answer seems to rest in small wooden boats that fit eighty people, which is, quite frankly, an incredible feat accomplished over a millennium ago.
One hundred years before the first Abbasid chef had the recipe written down for Lumqat al-Qādī, boats carrying brave Polynesian explorers were weathering the Pacific Ocean on their way to a distant continent.
So, while sweet potatoes didn’t make it all the way to Zambia by means of a Polynesian catamaran, it is quite remarkable the voyage that was taken by this little root vegetable.
About the Recipe
The way goulabjamoun is now, it’s hard to believe that the contemporary recipe shares much of the same history as similar Middle Eastern and Indian delicacies. In the modern version, the rosewater has been done away with, and there are only a few core ingredients: sweet potato, milk, sugar, cinnamon and flour.
The first step is to boil the sweet potatoes while simultaneously turning them into a mash. You’ll take a pot over medium-high heat with your milk and a small bit of sugar. As the milk heats, add in your sweet potatoes and bring the whole mixture to a boil. You’ll then reduce the heat and gradually cook the sweet potatoes through, which will become easier to mash as time goes on. After 10-15 minutes, you can take the whole pot off the stove.
Next comes the actual creation of goulabjamoun batter. With your base of milky sweet potato mash, add in your sugar, cinnamon and flour into the mix. This will thicken the batter up into one that has a fairly sticky, denser consistency.
Generally, goulabjamoun is a treat that is prepared in a deep fryer, but you’ll see that an easier way (and one highly recommended by us) is to use a dimpled pan. A pan like this – with 6-8 deep pockets or dimples pressed into one sheet of metal – are used to make dishes similar to Danish aebelskiver, Dutch poffertjes or certain types of fritters. If you happen to have a dimpled pan like this on hand, making goulabjamoun like this will be a breeze.
Melt a tiny dollop of frying oil (we used coconut) into each dimple, then you’ll place a spoonful of batter soon thereafter. Ideally, the oil will be enough such that it covers up the bottom half of the fritter and will fry the outside. Each side of the goulabjamoun should take 2-3 minutes at least, but you can fry them for a little longer than that if you’d like.
When done, take the goulabjamoun off the pan or out of the fryer, let it cool, and you’re done!
Our Take on the Recipe
Particularly because of its more famous “Indian cousin,” researching for the goulabjamoun recipe was a fairly difficult one. There were only a handful of recipes out there, many of which were underwhelming by our own standards. So while we do have a preference for referencing local bloggers and publications for source recipes, this time we used a book called The Recipes from Africa to serve as our baseline recipe.
For this recipe, we did take a few more “creative liberties” to create a recipe that everyone could enjoy. In this case, we didn’t see why we couldn’t create a gluten-free and vegan-friendly version of goulabjamoun.
Following that pursuit, we first made a switch of some key ingredients. We used rice flour instead of regular wheat flour, and we subbed in coconut milk instead of regular milk to create the vegan-friendly alternative. From there, we made our regular swap of coconut sugar in for granulated sugar – which we thought gave a nicer, darker and earthier color to the goulabjamoun overall – as well as more cinnamon to the batter.
Of course, we also changed the way that these fritters were cooked. Like we mentioned before, we swapped in the dimpled pan in lieu of the deep fryer. Coupled with using a coconut oil for frying, this was our personal preference for making these desserts both because it’s healthier and because there’s less potential mess to make. Also, we found that the flavors in the non-fryer goulabjamoun came out more pronounced as well.
Regardless of which cooking method you choose, though, goulabjamoun is a fun, super quick and easy dessert that has its own unique flavors. One bite full of sweet potato and cinnamon, and we’ll bet you’re hooked.
How would you cook your goulabjamoun? Comment below!
Helpers for this Recipe
Goulabjamoun: Zambian Sweet Potato Dessert Fritters
Yield 18 goulabjamoun fritters
- 2 medium-sized sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 1/4 cup coconut sugar
- 1/4 cup rice flour
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- Coconut oil for the pan
Stage 1 - Pre-cook the Sweet Potatoes and Coconut Milk
- Start by taking a small pot with your coconut milk over medium heat
- As the milk starts to heat up, add in a teaspoon of your coconut sugar and whisk through. You want to make sure the sugar dissolves and integrates with the milk before adding the sweet potatoes
- Next, add in your cubed sweet potatoes and rise the stovetop heat to a medium-high setting
- When the coconut milk has come to a boil, reduce the heat to a low simmer
- As the sweet potatoes cook in the heated coconut milk, use your whisk to break down and mash the sweet potato as it softens. Continue to do this for ~10-12 minutes as the potatoes cook fully through
- When the sweet potatoes have fully cooked and been mashed, take the pot off the heat and transfer your mash mixture to a mixing bowl
Stage 2 - Create Goulabjamoun Batter
- Give your sweet potato mash another good mix before adding in your other goulabjamoun ingredients
- Add in the rest of your coconut sugar and cinnamon into the mixture, then whisk well again. You'll start to see the color of the batter begin to darken as everything mixes through
- Finish your batter off by mixing in the rice flour. Because it's a particularly dry ingredient, whisk the entire mash really vigorously to make sure it combines well
Stage 3 - Cook your Goulabjamoun
- Start by taking a dimpled pan over medium high heat. A pan with deep pockets similar to one you would use for fritters, Danish aebelskiver or Dutch poffertjes would work well here
- When the pan has heated up, reduce the stovetop heat to a medium flame and add a drop of coconut oil into each dimple
- Take a spoonful of your batter and place it into each dimple of the pan. Ideally, there's enough oil to engulf the bottom half of the goulabjamoun. If not, add a little extra oil to get this effect
- After 2-3 minutes on the bottom side, every carefully use a spoon or a chopstick to turn the goulabjamoun over
- Cook for another 2-3 minutes on the other side, then take off the heat and you're done!