While the city’s residents retire to bed, traditional sweet shops open their kitchens to start preparing sehri soon after taraveeh. While many people opt for dishes such as nihari or mutton karahi, there are also some traditional sehri dishes in high demand during the month of Ramazan.
One of these dishes is a bowl of pheni, which can also be eaten as dessert.
Sweet shops and bakeries in downtown Rawalpindi, from Raja Bazaar to Purana Qila, Bhabara Bazaar, Saidpuri Gate, Banni and Katarpura specialise in making the dish, but only a few are popular among locals.
A kind of vermicelli, pheni is fried and served in milk. The noodle is made from semolina, butter and fine wheat flour. Semolina, flour, sugar and butter are mixed into dough that is left in ghee for 15 minutes.
The dough is then stretched using a mixture of corn flour and ghee and doubled, and the process is repeated 10 or 11 times before the dough has been flattened and is ready to be deep fried. The pheni is fried and served with milk and sugar, and garnished with almonds and pistachios.
The pheni is made from semolina and ghee so it is digested slowly and keeps you from feeling hungry during the fast
The origin of the dish is debated – the name appears to have come from the Middle East or Central Asia, but the dish itself is similar to Indian puri and Rajisthani sutarfeni.
Mohammad Saleem, the owner of a sweet shop in Kartarpura, said pheni is a traditional Punjabi dish made mostly by people from Amritsar and Lahore. “We have been making it in Rawalpindi for the last 60 years,” he said.
Although pheni is made year round, the real season for it is Ramazan, he said, during which people have it for sehri.
He said that pheni was originally made with semolina, but some people used fine wheat flour, which ruined the taste of the dish.
There are also two types of pheni prepared at his shop – one made using vegetable oil and the other in desi ghee.
Pheni is better than bread because it is made from semolina and richer in fibre
“The time for sehri is short, so we prefer a bowl of milk and pheni and a cup of tea. The pheni is made from semolina and ghee so it is digested slowly and you do not feel hungry during the fast,” Naeem Ahmed, who lives in Chaklala III and was visiting the store to purchase pheni, said.
He said children and elderly people in particular want something that is healthier than spicy food, making pheni a good option for them. The dish also requires little time to prepare, so a bowl of pheni is ready within 10 minutes.
Satellite Town resident Suleman Malik said he used to eat French toast for sehri but has taken up pheni because he comes back home from work late and does not have much time to pick up food. “The semolina is better than bread made from fine wheat flour because it is richer in fibre,” he added.
Raja Zahid from Bhabara Bazaar said pheni is a fresh item available in the city that is also affordable, which is why he prefers it.
Originally published in Dawn, May 29th, 2017