Rawalpindi – Muhammad Umair is holding an open pouch made of cotton cloth in his right hand. With a twirling motion, he moves it skillfully over a hot karahi, and a thick stream of batter trickles down into the pot from the bottom of the pouch. Almost concentric, somewhat knotted, rings float at the surface of the bubbling, scalding oil. Just as the rings turn golden, Umair takes them out carefully with a skimmer 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 work at a shop called The Grato on Murree Road, which their father opened in 1983, and Ramadan is busy season for them.
“The rush of customers starts around two hours before iftar,” Umair said. “So we start preparing early.”
The preparation includes firing up the karahi, making the sugar syrup and preparing pots of fresh batter at regular intervals, because the mixture goes bad if it’s allowed to sit for more than 45 minutes, Umair said.
If pakoray are the mandatory snacks for breaking the fast, 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 city. Umair said he uses around 35 to 40 kilograms of maida – the principal ingredient of jalebi – every day during Ramadan, which roughly translates to 260 kilos of jalebi.
That’s about twice the amount of jalebi prepared on regular days outside Ramadan.
One kilo of grato costs Rs200 compared to Rs50 for regular jalebi. Despite the difference in price, Umair said the demand for grato has been high and he’s not had to sit idle this Ramadan.
At the back of the one-room shop, there’s a faded color banner with a photo of Umair’s father, Haji Abdul Ghaffar, who invented this style of jalebi right here in Rawalpindi.
It was exactly 29 years ago when Ghaffar came up with a new technique. He abandoned chemicals such as baking powder and artificial colors used in the regular, narrow-piped jalebi. Instead, he deep fried a simple mixture of fine wheat flour (maida), ground black lentils, yeast and water, then submerged the thick and crispy golden brown product in sugar syrup. And thus, grato jalebi was born.
Today, the popularity of grato is evident by the fact that there are several shops in Rawalpindi and many more around the country which claim to sell “the original” grato jalebi. But there’s only one true The Grato, Umair said, and try all they might, the fakers always fall short of matching his father’s recipe.
“The imitators don’t bother us much,” Umair said. “We have plenty of regular customers who never go to any other jalebi shop.”
Sardar Mohsin Iftikhar, who lives in the nearby Waris Shah area, is one such customer who’s been buying jalebi from The Grato for around 12 years now.
“This is definitely the best jalebi shop in Rawalpindi,” Iftikhar said with such enthusiasm he could have easily passed for the shop’s official spokesperson.
Sitting over a hot karahi in the sweltering heat can be challenging, and even though Umair has had to break his fast at the shop instead of home, he said he’s never wished for a different job.
He is, however, looking forward to Eid when he can take a day off, spend some time with his family and enjoy an evening meal with them. Have some jalebi for dessert, perhaps.