The mango season is on its way out. But, luckily, Indian food traditions offer enough nifty ways to extend that mango magic to meals all year round. Tart raw mangoes can be dried and used as a souring agent in curries and condiments, or turned into piquant chutneys and puckering pickles. Or, if it is sweet you want, fresh mangoes can be stewed in sugary syrup to make glossy murabba that evoke memories of a warm summer evenings.
A murabba is a preserve made with sugar, spices and fruit, ideally pectin rich. The fruit is taken whole or cut in chunks and cooked in sugar, which is a potent humectant, to a precise degree. This ensures the fruit does not disintegrate in the syrup, even as the sugar penetrates the fruit. The final step is adding spices and essences like rose water or Kewra. Served dry or in syrup, the result is a delectable treat that straddles the line between jam and confection.
The story of murabba’s origins is closely aligned with global trade, conquest, migration and food science. It’s widely believed that large-scale production of sugar from sugarcane began in India millennia ago. From here, sugar migrated to Persia, where it was prized as a medicinal spice. Sarah B Hood, a writer and award-winning jam maker, says in her 2021 book Jam, Jelly and Marmalade: A Global History that it was most likely in Sasanian Persia that jams were first created.
Arabs discovered sugar in Persia and took it further, refining the art of sugar-making and devising ingenious ways to cook with sugar that yielded delicacies befitting the medieval society’s upper crust. The word murabba is of Arabic origin. Ibn Sayyār Al-Warrāq’s 10th-century cookbook Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchen dedicates a chapter to the preparation of conserves (murabbayat) and electuaries (juwarishnat). In it are recipes for murabba made of ginger, dates, ridged cucumber, citron and more.
Arabs used to fortify their murabbas with herbs and spices and eat them for their medicinal properties. A word they had for fruit conserves was anbijat. Anbij is the old Arabicised version for the Persian word for mango – anbah, which is derived from the Sanskrit aamra. The use of the term anbijat for jam in general, scholars say, is rooted in the ancient Indian tradition of preserving mangoes in honey that was wildly popular in the Arab world.
Incidentally, when Daulat Khan Lodhi, the governor of Lahore, invited Babur to fight Ibrahim Lodhi, the sultan of Delhi, the invitation was accompanied by half-ripened mangoes preserved in honey. Babur saw this as a propitious omen and decided to undertake the journey to India. In his memoirs, between lachrymose recollections of the fruit of his homeland, Babur praises the mango and writes, “Unripe, they make excellent condiments, are good also preserved in syrup.”
India is believed to have imported the art of making murabba from Western Asia, although from the Babur anecdote, it does seem plausible that the technique for preserving fruit in sugar syrup predates the arrival of the Mughals. There are several other theories about the route taken by murabba to reach the subcontinent. A popular hypothesis is that murabba arrived with nomadic tribes of Gurjistan, present-day Georgia, who escaped persecution at home to settle in the northern parts of the subcontinent. Others credit the Portuguese. Food historian Michael Krondl believes it was the Portuguese expertise for preserving fruit in sugar that was behind the sweetmeats and confitures mentioned by French chronicler Francis Bernier in his account of his travels in 17th-century Bengal.
“Among other fruits,” writes Bernier, “they preserve large citrons, such as we have in Europe, a certain delicate root about the length of sarsaparilla, amba and pineapples, two common fruits of India, small myrobalan plums which are excellent, lemon and ginger.”
Like Bernier, there were others who noticed the conserves, even if they disagreed about the origins. In the early 1800s, Scottish physician-botanist Francis Hamilton wrote that Maldeh (present-day Malda) was famous for its morobba, an art introduced by the “Muhammedans who came from the West of India”. “[But] the fall of Moslem power,” he writes, “has reduced the thriving tradition to a single practitioner who preserved amloki, horitoki, amra, amarosh, sriphol, kushmando, shotomuli and tetul.”
Whatever the origin story, it is undeniable that murabba’s popularity with Mughal epicureans sealed its spot in the culinary culture of the land. The Mughal badshahs wanted to enjoy their favourite fruits all year round and so their preservation became a constant preoccupation. Along with a range of spice-laced pickles, the sweet murabba – made with luscious fruits and expensive sugar – became an integral part of royal repast.
In his account of his travels in India during the reign of Jahangir, Anglican chaplain Edward Terry describes “salads of the curious fruits of the country, some preserved in sugar and others raw…” Centuries later, Mirza Mohammad Hidayat Afzan, the father-in-law of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, mentions in Bazm-e-Aakhir a cornucopia of murabba made with baans, karonda, bihi, aam, seb, turanj, karela, nimu, ananas, gurhal, badam. Murabba used to be a part of royal gifts and offerings. When Mir Zafar arrived in Calcutta in September 1764, the British presented to the nawab a maund of murabba that cost them 19 rupees, among other things.
Apart from royal patronage, what led to the development of industries around preserving fruit was the fruit’s abundance, says historian Versha Gupta in her book Botanical Culture of Mughal India. Thaneswar in present-day Haryana became a hub for murabba, especially the ones made from mangoes and myrobalan. Rampur, Rohilkhand and Lucknow in present-day Uttar Pradesh were famous for turunj ka murabba (citron peel preserved in syrup). Down south, Bidar was renowned for jaiphal murabba that was mentioned in Rai Chatar Man Kayath’s 18th-century work Chahar Gulshan.
In Bengal, the town of Shiuri, now the headquarters of Birbhum district, is famous for its murabba, or morobba in Bengali. According to local lore, the nawab of Rajnagar tasted the fruit confection on his visit to Benares and was so enamoured that he brought back specialised craftsmen to Bengal, sowing the seeds for the region’s morobba legacy. Shiuri produced an assortment of morobba, but the one that became its signature was made with the root of shotomuli (asparagus racemosus), a medicinal plant used in traditional Indian medicine.
There are various other murabbas that are used as common home remedies. Bael murabba, for instance, is given for stomach ailments like diarrhoea and dysentery, ginger murabba for cough and cold, amla murabba for boosting immunity and aiding digestion. The list goes on and on.
Bengali writer Bipradas Mukhopadhyay’s Mistanna Pak, published in 1904, features recipes for several murabbas, including starfruit, gooseberry, sugarcane and pineapple. A rare recipe for thor (banana stem) murabba details the cumbersome procedure of soaking the fruit in water infused with slake lime or suhaga churna (borax stone powder) before cooking it with precision. Some recipes in the book use leaves of guava or jamun to harness their antibacterial virtues.
“In Kashmir, bumchoonth (quince)...are stewed with sugar and spices like cardamom, cinnamon and fresh ginger to make bumchoonth murbe,” said culinary entrepreneur and chef Jasleen Marwah. A few recipes also call for a pinch of saffron.
A winter favourite in North India is gajar ka murabba – peeled carrots stewed in sugar to a glossy finish. Food writer Sangeeta Khanna’s favourite, however, is the murabba made with seasonal black carrots, savoured with a dollop of fresh malai.
The most egalitarian of all murabba is perhaps the one made of ash gourd. Agra’s fabled petha, called oal ka murabba in some parts of the country, is a refined version of ash gourd murabba made by treating the vegetable with lime and stewing and steeping it in syrup. Legend ties Agra’s petha to Shah Jahan’s kitchen, but food historians such as Pushpesh Pant argue the ash gourd petha is a poor man’s sweet.
Ash gourd murabba, along with murabba made of karonda, is what gives desi fruit cakes their distinct identity. “In Bengali Muslim homes, Shahi Zarda (sweet rice dish) crammed with ash gourd morobba and nikuti (deep-fried balls of dough soaked in sugar) is a festive favourite” said food blogger Sayantani Mahapatra. Mahapatra grew up on home-made morobba made with seasonal fruit, painstakingly prepared over three days. “The fruits would be stewed and steeped in syrup alternatively, to a precise degree, over three days, during which time sugar would be added in instalments. The result was spectacular.”
Khanna points out that it is murabba made with papaya, or watermelon rind, that passes off as tutti frutti is India – the chewy, pop-coloured cubes that appear in sliced fruit cakes, biscuits and tutti frutti ice cream, the definitive dessert of pre-liberalisation India. Then, there is murabba made with pointed gourd or parwal, which is stuffed with sweetened khoya or kheer and topped with almonds, cashews, pistachio. Flecks of silver warq elevate it to a luxurious treat.
A luxurious murabba is what a prince of Delhi was expecting when he was invited to dine with Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Lucknow. The nawab’s khansama served the prince a dish that looked like a sweet murabba but was in fact a savoury meat korma. The prince, it is said, reciprocated with a table groaning with pulao, breads, korma, biryani and kebabs – with everything (including the plates) made with sugar.
Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.