It’s an elaborate affair. Long, almost to the point of being tedious; intricate — only experts tend to get it right; and delicate — one needs to put a bit of heart into it to make it ‘just perfect.’ Pheni, the crispy, puffy disk of vermicelli that appears across the city in Ramazan, is a product of love borne out of toil.

In Karachi, it is perhaps the golden pheni stacks with their wavy clefts strewn around and neatly settled on cane baskets outside sweet shops and bakeries that is a sure mark of Ramazan having arrived.

But to those who slog for hours throughout the month to make the stacks stand tall, the crumbly discs are no less than giant gold coins — their labour of love.

The karigars or artisans who work to ensure that this must-have Ramazan delicacy is on our tables — almost certainly, sunken in sugary milk and peppered with crushed dried fruit and nuts — toil from dawn till dusk to meet the spike in demand for pheni in Ramazan.


Pheni has to be fried just right: undercook it and it is raw, overcook it and it gets charred


Various bakeries and sweet marts across Karachi seek outside help to bolster their production of pheni in the month — this assistance arrives mainly from Punjab as pheni is quintessentially a Punjabi delicacy, and so the experts mainly belong to that community.

“Teams of karigars arrive a few weeks before Eid from Punjab,” says a supervisor of a bakery kitchen, which has five retail outlets in Karachi. The labourers charge around Rs3,000 to Rs5,000 per 100 kilograms sack of flour, which takes around two days for a team of five people to make into pheni, including the parching or drying period. “It’s a job that requires certain expertise and not everybody is good at it,” nods the supervisor.

Since pheni remains in vogue among Karachiites largely in the month of Ramazan, local bakeries do not have a permanent set-up for its production. “We provide the karigars with a kitchen, ingredients and accommodation for a month and they ensure that the supply cycle is smooth and timely, especially in the first two weeks of Ramazan,” the supervisor adds.

Local bakers say the demand for the delicacy in Karachi follows the structure of a bell curve. In the first week it surges to a height then stays high for a while and falls after, say, the 20th of the month.

“For the first week, people tend to be very particular about sehri and iftar,” observes Rehmat Ali, a manager at a famous bakery in Gulistan-i-Jauhar. “But after the 20th of the month, the Eid shopping fever sets in and then only on chand raat does the demand surge, before it ends only to appear next year.”

While most of those who fast stay away from food and drink for the entire day, if you were to ask some of the labourers at bakeries, they explain that their lives are practically tied to the factories where they work — with no exit timings.


Various bakeries and sweet marts across Karachi seek outside help to bolster their production of pheni in the month — this assistance arrives mainly from Punjab as pheni is quintessentially a Punjabi delicacy, and so the experts mainly belong to that community.


“It’s hard work especially if you start late, and not before Ramazan” says Mohammad Qasim, a Karachiite of Punjabi origin, who teamed up with the migrant workers from Punjab at a factory in Gulshan-i-Iqbal.

Qasim says the art of making the perfect pheni requires a rare dedication. Any dough made in distraction exposes itself at the frying level. “The secret lies in the texture which threads the fine line between being brittle enough to be crispy, yet not so, so it remains bent in a round shape.”

The making of the dough is arguably the hardest part. It’s the mixing of flour with ghee layers after layers that take up a major chunk of the time. “It takes a lot of patience and a bit of intuition to know when it is ready for the pan,” he says.

Mohammad Akram is a proud owner of a small but prominent sweet shop at Qasba Colony. Customers in the neighbourhood and beyond, throng his Kainaat Shireen shop in Ramazan to buy pheni from him, which makes him bubble with pride. He claims to have been supervising the pheni-making process for the past 35 years.

Akram says that it takes 12 hours of non-stop work to finish the kneading-in-ghee of a 100kg sack of flour into dough, which translates into up to 300kg of pheni discs. Then another two to three hours of frying goes into the process, which makes the schedule impossible for workers; however, he adds that the pay is, nonetheless, good.

“On an average, I’d estimate each worker who arrives in the city and gets his share of work in a respectable bakery makes around Rs20,000 to Rs25,000 in Ramazan, which means a perfect Eid for the family!”

A middle-sized bakery manages to sell about 70 to 100kg worth of pheni a day; however, big names can sell up to 400kg or more, estimates Akram.

The work begins almost a week before Ramazan and ends by the 25th of the month. According to Akram, this is because unlike many other bakery products, pheni remains fresh for at least 10 to 12 days.

“Most bakeries work in advance as per their respective projected demands,” says Akram, “but they also tend to be conservative in their estimates, because more than anything, they fear wastage and they know that in Karachi nobody even cares to look at pheni after Eid.”

The writer is a freelance journalist. He tweets @AmmarShahbazi

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 19th, 2015

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