Muhammad Umair creates concentric, somewhat knotted rings which float on the surface of bubbling oil. Just as the rings turn golden, he takes them out with a strainer and dips them in a pot full of sugar syrup. A fresh batch of grato jalebi is now ready.
Umair, 25, has been making jalebi for seven years. He and his brother Waqar Azeem manage “The Grato” on the Benazir Bhutto Road, which their father set up in 1983.
Unsurprisingly, Ramazan is a busy month for them. The rush of customers starts around two hours before iftar, said Umair, so we start early.
Preparations include firing up the karahi, making the sugar syrup and preparing fresh batter at regular intervals, because the mixture goes bad if it’s allowed to sit for more than 45 minutes, Umair said.
Jalebi is the quintessential deep-fried sweet on the iftar menu. And grato is perhaps one of the most popular varieties of jalebi in the garrison city.
Umair said he uses around 35 to 40 kilogrammes (kgs) of flour – the principal ingredient for jalebi – every day during Ramazan, which roughly translates to 260 kgs of jalebi. That’s about twice the amount of jalebi prepared on regular days.
One kg of grato costs Rs200 compared to Rs50 for regular jalebi. Despite the difference in price, Umair said the demand for grato is high.
At the back of the one-room shop, there’s a faded banner with a photo of Umair’s father, Haji Abdul Ghaffar, who invented this style of jalebi right here in Rawalpindi.
Exactly 29 years ago, Ghaffar came up with a new technique. He abandoned chemicals such as baking powder and artificial colours used in regular, narrow-piped jalebi. Instead, he deep fried a simple mixture of fine wheat flour, ground black lentils, yeast and water, then submerged the thick and crispy golden brown batter in sugar syrup. And thus, grato jalebi was born.
Today, the popularity of grato is evident from the fact that there are several shops in Rawalpindi and many more around the country which claim to sell ‘the original’ grato jalebi. But that’s only The Grato, said Umair. “Try as they might, imitators always fall short. We have plenty of regular customers who never go anywhere else,” he added.
Sardar Mohsin Iftikhar, who lives in Waris Shah, is one such customer who has been buying jalebi from The Grato for 12 years now. “This is definitely the best jalebi shop in Rawalpindi,” Iftikhar said with so much enthusiasm, he could have easily passed for the shop’s official spokesperson.
Sitting by a hot karahi in the sweltering heat can
be challenging and even though Umair has to break his fasts at the shop, he said he has never wished for a different job.
He is, however, looking forward to Eid so he can take a day off, spend some time with his family and enjoy dinner with them. Have some jalebi for dessert, perhaps.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 19th, 2012.