Jalebi – India’s most beloved street sweet.
My favorite scene in the new movie “Lion” is when actor Dev Patel’s character Saroo is transported back to his childhood India when he sees Jalebis at a friend’s party in Australia. Jalebi is an Indian street food / dessert that Saroo desired as a hungry child in northwestern India. It was always out of his reach but his older brother promised one day he would have one. Saroo responded that they would buy the whole jalebi food stall!
Shortly after that scene, Saroo fell asleep and became trapped on a train waiting for his brother that takes him over a thousand kilometers away from his village to Calcutta. He becomes one of India’s lost children. Eventually he is adopted by an Australian couple and grew up in a comfortable family. The unexpected jalebi reminds him of his first family to whom he’s still lost after 25 years and sparks him on a journey that results in getting the answers of their whereabouts.
A five year old Saroo with his older brother eyeing the jalebi vendor.
This lovely scene shows the power of food memories to transport us back. As soon as the scene played, I connected. I have a similar food memory from about the same age. My food memory centers on the smell of the apple crisp of my grandmother. Any time I smell the combination of baked apples, cinnamon and butter, I am transported to the snowy winter of my 6th year, when my grandparents came to stay with us while my parents went on a business trip. The ground was covered in snow and my brother and I ran from the bus to our house to escape the bitter cold. When we opened the door, we both got a wiff of the apple crisp my grandma was just taking out of the oven. That smell and memory cemented in my psyche and can be recalled like a movie trailer.
Jalebi is one of India’s most beloved sweet treats. I first came into contact with it at my local Indian restaurant, Baba India in Oakley, a few years ago. It can sometimes be found on their lunch buffet and is basically the Indian version of the funnel cake. It’s made by extruding a thin batter of wheat and chickpea flower into hot oil in large spirals that are then soaked in warm syrup flavored with cardamom and saffron. The end result is a bright, orangey, crispy sweet treat.
The movie is worth seeing not only for the power of the food memory scene, but the many layers of the theme of finding your origin.