The food memory that triggered Saroo to embark on a search for his first family
In the Academy Award-nominated film Lion, a five-year-old Indian boy named Saroo sees the sweet, sticky Indian dessert, jalebi, at a street market. Moments later, he gets lost, takes a train ride to Kolkata by chance, and eventually lands in an orphanage from where he is adopted by an Australian couple. Years later, Saroo, happens upon a plate of the funnel cake-like confectionery, which triggers memories of India and his first family. The food memory prompts Saroo to embark on a quest to find them.
It’s not surprising that encountering the treat triggers Saroo’s memory: jalebi is India’s most beloved sweets. But in fact, it isn’t even truly of South Asian origin. By most historical accounts, jalebi is of West Asian provenance and made its way to the subcontinent in the 14th or 15th century via trade. The oldest recipe for the precursor to jalebi, the zalabiya, an ancient pastry known by different names across Asia—zalabiya in Arabia, mushabbak in Levant, zulbia in Iran, and jalebi on both the Indian subcontinent and in Afghanistan—appears in a 10th-century Baghdadi cookbook, Kitab-al-Tabikh. The sweet was distributed to the poor during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. “Its meaning has [since] drifted in several directions,” said food scholar Darra Goldstein in The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets.