As Eidul Fitr celebrations reach their peak, the only thing worrying Naveed Sheikh is how to acquire pure milk in the immense quantities required to continue supplying Rabri to his customers during Eid days.
He has to arrange at least 16,000 kilograms of milk to produce 4,000 kilograms of Rabri. Sheikh is a fourth-generation heir to the business of his forefathers', ‘Rewari walay Haji Rabri’ business, which dates back to 1948.
It was his paternal great grand-father, Haji Bashiruddin – who established it in the historic city of Hyderabad (once the capital of Sindh) of the newly born state of Pakistan. Over all those years, ‘Haji Rabri’ assimilated itself into the very identity of Hyderabad, much like Bombay Bakery and the city's famous glass bangle factories.
Rewari is an Indian city in the state of Haryana. After the partition, Haji Bashiruddin and his family migrated from Rewari to settle in Hyderabad, where he set up shop in the historic Tahir Bazaar. He would not have guessed, perhaps, that his recipe for Rabri would become a brand name in the days to come, not only for his new hometown, but across Pakistan, rather, the world.
Tahir Bazaar is also commonly known as Shahi Bazaar (said to be lengthwise the longest bazaar in Asia), and faces the historic Pucca Qila, built by the Kalhoro dynasty ruler Ghulam Shah Kalhoro in the 18th century. Families like Haji’s had settled in large numbers in and around the Qilla soon after the partition, besides other parts of Hyderabad. Most sweetmeat producers and sellers originally hail from Rewari.
From Haji Bashiruddin's time till today, the shop has remained a family business run from a ground plus two-storey building.
“Abba jee (Haji Bashiruddin) settled here in this very house after migration. I remember being told that we paid Rs350 to a Hindu family after claiming this house in lieu of our own in Rewari,” recalls Naveed Sheikh's burqa-clad mother, Naseem Bano.
Naveed’s family have been through their share of ups and downs. His father, Nooruddin was murdered when the children were still young. Naveed's widowed mother then had to seek help from other family members to look after the shop.
She reminisced the days when her family’s womenfolk used to be part of the production process:
“There were no refrigerators. At that time, we used to keep a piece of muslin over the Rabri to keep it cool, as the house used to have ventilators – something the city of Hyderabad is known for. Nooruddin’s sisters and I used to work together under the supervision of my mother-in-law. But when the business started expanding, we decided to hire labour and it was perhaps during Ayub's regime when labourers started taking care of most of process.”
Attributing success in the business to the special prayers of Baba Salahuddin (a spiritual figure who lies buried in Kotri) Naseem Bano continues:
“Baba used to sit at our shop and always instructed Abba jee not to resort to adulteration,” she said.
Bano touches the ground as a sign of gratitude toward Allah for such boom in the business, and says that she has asked her children to not even think of compromising quality, as that would lead them nowhere.
The elderly Haji died a decade ago. When he had started the business, he would sell just a few kilograms of pure milk over a small counter. Now, they use 2,400 kilograms of milk to produce 600 kilograms of Rabri on normal days.
And on occasions like Eidul Fitr, the demand multiplies six to eight times. The situation is no different on Eidul Azha, Rabiul Awal, Independence Day or other festive occasions.
For the supply, Sheikh uses his own stock, as well as milk from other sources. He stays busy dealing with milkmen and making sure there is safe storage place for it at a time when an energy crisis is a prime threat.
Naveed Sheikh, who has obtained his Bachelors degree from Szabist, Dubai, says:
“We have our own pens for uninterrupted supplies. Besides, we have signed deals with other suppliers to receive uninterrupted milk supplies. Our problem is, we ask for pure milk, not adulterated, and we can judge if it is impure. If 40 kilograms of milk ends up producing 9.5 kilograms of Rabri, it proves the milk has been adulterated. On the other hand, if 40 kilograms of milk produces 10 kilograms Rabri, then it is pure. Its as simple as that.”
The production process for Rabri seems easy and simple. Naveed tells me:
“We get 10 kilograms of Rabri out of 40 kilograms milk which is boiled in four, large-sized, frying pan-like vessels in the shop’s backyard. We add sugar and keep the milk boiling at a specific temperature, while separating skin from the milk and collecting them in pans during the boiling process.”
Many have tried to copy the recipe and use the ‘Haji Rabri’ brand name to lure in customers. But those who have tasted the real Haji Rabri are hardly tempted by counterfeits. Nevertheless, Naveed Sheikh got the name ‘Rewari walay Haji Rabri’ registered and trademarked a few years ago.
“I have obtained registration from the federal government’s Trade Marks Registry for 19 such names, which were likely to be used as trademarks by others in the future,” Naveed explained. He is still busy fighting a legal battle over the use of the name of ‘Haji’ in the same bazaar, which he hopes to win soon. He has also launched a website with the insignia of ‘Haji Rabri walay’.
While Haji Rabri remains a specialty, they have introduced other sweetmeats, too: Akhrot ka Halwa, Sohn Halwa, Pistachio Rabri, Doodh Dulhari, Gajjar ka Halwa, Lab e Shireen, Ras Malaee, Sugar-free Rabri, etc. But their defining item, and the one which sells the most is still their original Rabri.
The Rabri is sold in earthen tumblers, to keep its quality and aroma intact, and let travellers take it with them to other cities without affecting its taste. It is tightly packed with coarse twine. Over the years, though, plastic pots and bowls have also been introduced to buyers.
Their customer-base stretches across Pakistan, and they believe that it is basically purity that makes their Rabri distinctive among other sweetmeats. Besides commoners, customers include officers, politicians, businessmen, etc. Haji Rabri’s popularity echoed even in the parliament recently when an MNA from Hyderabad Syed Wasim Hussain, offered to host his treasury and opposition members to a treat at Hyderabad's famous Bombay Bakery and Haji Rabri.
“I invited the federal minister Ahsan Iqbal and opposition leader Syed Khurshid Shah to visit Hyderabad for the proposed establishment of a public sector university, and to let me serve them with these specialties of the city,” Wasim recalled.
“It is endlessly delicious. I have tasted sweets across the country, but hardly anyone can match Haji Rabri's taste,” says another customer, Ali Nawaz, who eats it off and on and vouches for the flavour.
25-year-old Burhan Sami, an army officer currently serving in Jehlum, is of the same mind.
“I have tasted the Rabri of other big names, even in Karachi, but Haji Rabri has no match. There is no one across Pakistan whose recipe is as good as theirs; it has its own unique taste,” he says, before adding that every now and then, he sends Haji Rabri to his family in Karachi, in an earthen tumbler, of course.