Middle Eastern

An Iraqi Funnel Cake Better Than Anything You’d Get on a Boardwalk

January 31, 2017

Summers in Wildwood, New Jersey were marked by one dish of gastronomic ecstasy: funnel cake. Funnel cake's powdered sugar content was nearly impossible to rationalize, and it made me feel like a whale after. But I tried not to care. The experience was worth it.

For many of us, the funnel cake sold at American fairs is just a variant of a sweet that’s been eaten in our homes, and those of our families, all around the world. In my particular case, funnel cake is a lot like jalebi, an Indian sweet that I often found impossible to describe to anyone who wasn’t South Asian. Individual jalebi are much smaller than one funnel cake. The dessert is made from deep-fried maida flour, giving it the color of a tangerine. Jalebi has got the same maze-like contortions as funnel cake, but its coils are coated with a viscid sugar syrup that gets on your hands.

Jalebi is a centuries-old dessert that traveled from its South Asian home and spread across the Middle East and North Africa. In Iran, it is called zulbia. To those who live in the North African countries of Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia, it’s zlebia. To the Iraqi Jews of Amelia Saltsman’s family, it is zengoula.

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Zengoula is a recipe derived from Saltsman’s 2015 book, The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen. The dough is made primarily from all-purpose flour, and the syrup is a cocktail of lemons, water, sugar, and either grapeseed, sunflower, or avocado oil. It’s a dessert at the nexus of Saltsman's Iraqi and Jewish identities: Saltsman is the daughter of an Iraqi father and Romanian mother who met in Palestine. The recipe for zengoula was originally her Iraqi grandmother’s, and she writes eloquently about how the Iraqi side of her family sought refuge in this dessert, particularly around Hanukkah. Call it funnel cake or jalebi, but, as you make this, I'd suggest you add a new word to your vocabulary if it isn’t there already: zengoula.

Ever make zengoula? (Or jalebi, for that matter?) Let us know in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • VeganWithaYoYo
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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


VeganWithaYoYo February 1, 2017
Wait, a vegan funnel cake recipe?!? And it's "better than" the nonvegan one according to a nonvegan writer?

You know, I think I might be excited about this ;-)
robyn January 31, 2017
I agree, I am intimidated to make this. But thank you so much for sharing!
Zhinka C. January 31, 2017
this is just German style funnel cakes, why change the name?
E January 31, 2017
LOVE jalebi so thanks for this related recipe! Still intimidated to try to make it, but looks good :)
creamtea January 31, 2017
This is the kind of food history I love! Thanks for this!
Mayukh S. January 31, 2017