I was in the mood for something sweet, thanks to the heat, as I wandered around Queens this week. And finding myself in Jackson Heights, I sought out one of my favorite desserts from the Indian subcontinent—gulab jamun. Gulab jamun is simple and delicious. A perfectly round ball of dough fried to a beautiful brown and then immersed in a cardamom, saffron, or rose flavored syrup. The dough is made from milk and milk solids, and is not sweet in itself, but soaks up all of the wonderful sticky syrup, absorbing the flavor and changing the texture of the dough to a moist, smooth, and at best, almost creamy, doughnut. Some versions are even sprinkled with pistachios or almonds.
I ordered half a pound of gulab jamun at this particular shop, but much to my dismay, the dough turned out to be dry, with a very large crumb, and a lingering aftertaste of refrigerator. So I did what anyone would do in that situation: went to four other sweet shops in the neighborhood, not stopping until I found a good gulab jamun.
The catalyst for my gulab jamun quest. With the first bite, I knew that something was not quite right. There was no flavor other than sweetness. The balls of dough were large and dry. The syrup had not permeated at all, and it wasn't flavored with anything but sugar. And yes, there was that taste of having sat too long, uncovered, in the refrigerated case. Definitely not the best example of the sweet.
Price: $4.00 for 1/2 pound.
37-14 73rd Street, Jackson Heights(map) (718) 651-5001
Maharaja Quality Sweets & Snacks
Getting warmer on the gulab jamun trail. I noticed whole cardamom pods floating in the syrup as the counter-woman spooned my order into a plastic container. The syrup had much more complexity than the previous one. I could taste the cardamom in every bite. The dough was firm, with a distinct difference between the harder exterior and the slightly softer interior. Not dry, although not particularly moist, the flavor was great, but the texture left something to be desired.
Price: $3.00 for 2 pieces.
73-10 37th Avenue, Jackson Heights(map) (718) 505-2680
Delhi Palace Sweets
At Delhi Palace, I got two versions of the sweet; one was a golden brown and one much darker. The darker one was fried crisp, with a thick skin, and tasted of grease and fryer, like the fried dough at a street fair, only sweeter. The lighter colored ball of dough had an incredibly smooth texture and oozed thick syrup with every forkful. The syrup was mostly just sweet, with a hint of cardamom. The lighter one was much better, but still not great.
Price: $3.85 for ~1/2 pound.
37-33 74th Street, Jackson Heights(map) (718) 507-1123
At Bappy, there's no option of ordering by the pound; it is necessary to buy a whole container, which had six large balls of gulab jamun. Although the dark colored dough had completely absorbed the syrup, and there was even more syrup at the bottom of the container, Bappy's version was not cloying or overly sweet at all. The syrup was flavored well with cardamom, and not too thick. The dough was soft but not mushy, with the same texture throughout, no discernible difference between exterior and interior- smooth the whole way through.
Price: $5.00 for a container of 6 pieces.
85-07 Whitney Avenue, Elmhurst(map) (718) 458-0626
The Winner: Al-Naimat Sweets & Restaurant
Although Bappy had a great contender, Al-Naimat was the winner. It had everything that I was looking for and more. The small-sized golden brown balls of dough were smooth textured, fresh tasting, soft, syrup-soaked but not too sweet, and I could even taste the milk in the batter. The gulab jamun had the mouth-feel of sticky-toffee pudding or an incredibly moist cake, with a small crumb and sweet aftertaste. After eating so much sweetness, I could appreciate the complexity of flavor. The syrup had permeated the dough completely, with no excess. A nice end to a long search. The winner, and with the most reasonable price.
Price: $3.00 for 1/2 pound.
37-03 74th Street, Jackson Heights(map) (718) 476-1100
I want to continue the search even further—to Richmond Hill, Murray Hill, and Main Street, Flushing. But I definitely found some good gulab jamun in Jackson Heights. And although I kept this search strictly to sweet shops, I'm sure that there's great gulub jamun being served after dinner at many non-takeout restaurants as well. Where do you find your favorites—and where should I go next?