During Ramzan, a typical day starts with sehri. It’s a meal that fortifies the body for long hours of fasting until dusk when evening prayers are followed by a large iftar spread.
Often iftar specialities, like kebabs, keema samosas and phirni, garner more attention than foods served during sehri. In old Delhi, people from different communities mill about the streets of Nizamuddin and Jamia Nagar to sample these delicacies in the evening. But, little-known sehri street foods, such as khajla and pheni, that are specific to these areas, deserve their due too.
These deep-fried food items are made with wheat flour, ghee, salt, and semolina. One eats them by taking a piece in a bowl, pouring milk over it and adding a sprinkling of sugar. The concept is similar to a bowl of cornflakes.
Khajla is a crispy, flaky puri and could be sweet or salty. Think of it like the Indian puff pastry, where the dough is folded multiple times for a perfectly layered and crispy texture. It is available in other states too with slight variations in name and recipe. It is known as khaja in Jharkhand, khoja in Kolkata and chiroti in Maharashtra.
To make khajla, the dough is flattened into a thin sheet and covered with a paste made of ghee and cornflour. It is rolled, like a Swiss roll, and cut into even pieces. Then each piece is flattened like a roti and deep-fried in a wok till golden brown.
To make pheni, the dough is divided into lemon-sized balls. Each ball is assiduously rolled into fine strings, bunched up to create a ball (similar to wool balls), and then they are carefully deep fried till golden brown.
Making khajla and pheni require great skill, and these were not popular street food items about 20 years ago. They were prepared at home, either by a family member who knew the finer details or a cook was hired who specialised in making them. With time, street vendors and shops began selling these, and instead of the arduous process of home cooking, people opted for the ease of store-bought festive specialties.
For sehri foods, there are small speciality shops that run for only 30 days. They serve piping hot flavoured milk with khajla and pheni, and some offer seviyaan as well. Nihari and kebabs are sold alongside, but they are heavier on the body. Abu Sufiyan, a local resident and founder of the Old Delhi-based community Purani Dilli Walo Ki Baatein, says he prefers khajla and pheni over nihari and kebabs; just like me.
My father made pheni at home in his childhood. It prompted me to enquire why we eat fried food first thing in the morning. He said these are not heavy on the palate, ingredients like semolina and ghee stem hunger while fasting, and this meal is digested slowly in the body. He believes the combination of milk and ghee keeps the body cool too.
I get my fix of both with seviyaan and khajoor from from a shop named Matia Mahal in Old Delhi. During my last visit, I asked one of the locals about their significance. He said, iftar is not kaamil (complete) without rooh afza, and sehri is not kaamil without khajla.
In Old Delhi, khajla is priced at ₹200 a kilo, and pheni costs anywhere between ₹250 to ₹300. Look for the superior quality pure ghee-fried version.