Pheni by any other name is still pheni though, and it’s deeply embedded in cultural customs and practices across the subcontinent. In Telangana, Deepavali wouldn’t be complete without this sweet, and platters of garijalu.
❖ Pheni is part of the sargi thali during festivals like Karwa Chauth and Hartalika Teej, and also celebrations during Deepavali.
❖ It is also a staple of sehri — the pre-dawn meal eaten before the day’s fasting begins, during Ramzan.
❖ Made of semolina and ghee, pheni’s flimsy appearance belies its power to stave off hunger pangs for longer.
Come Karwa Chauth, and you’ll find a delicate vermicelli confection — layered/stacked in uneven discs — on most sargi thalis.
The fragile-looking food is known as pheni, pheniyan, phenaka, feni (not to be confused with the Goan brew), and a few other iterations of that spelling. In Rajasthan and Gujarat, it is called sutarfeni. A variant in Odisha goes by the name khaja (although it has a chunkier/flatter appearance than pheni), and is offered as part of the Lord Jagannath chhapan bhog at the Puri temple. In Karachi, it is sold as lacha dar sawwaiyan.
Pheni by any other name is still pheni though, and it’s deeply embedded in cultural customs and practices across the subcontinent. In Telangana, Deepavali wouldn’t be complete without this sweet, and platters of garijalu. During Hartalika Teej in August, women across Nepal and North India ensure they eat pheni before they fast. And during Ramzan, pheni forms an important component of the pre-dawn meal, sehri, in both India and Pakistan.
Why does this floss-like food serve so well during times of fasts and festivities?
Despite its insubstantial, wispy appearance, pheni makes for a filling meal. Made of semolina and ghee, it takes longer to digest and thus keeps you satiated for longer as well. That’s a vital attribute for the sole meal you’ll have before a day of fasting. Secondly, since sargi items and sehri are both consumed within a short window of time before sunrise, pheni’s quick, no-fuss prep — the vermicelli is pre-cooked, so all you need to do is soak a quantity of it in warm milk, with dry fruits and sugar as needed — makes it a boon. (A Telugu wedding version sees it served with a boondi laddoo and hot milk; the laddoo is crushed over the pheni and the milk poured over it so it cooks.)
Just as the streets of downtown Rawalpindi buzz with vendors selling pheniyan during Ramzan, so too do units in Varanasi carry on a 200-year-old tradition of preparing pheni ahead of Indian festivals. Artisans and culinary experts skilled in the technique of making pheni are brought in from Kanpur and Bihar to meet the demand. The Benarasi pheni is sold in large quantities not only across India, but also in Nepal, Bangladesh, and the Gulf countries, where varieties such as kemami (hive), lachha (standa) and paratha are imported during Ramzan/Eid. That the families engaged in making Benarasi pheni are mostly Hindu adds a sweet undertone of solidarity, just like the strand that connects the sargi to the sehri.