During Eid, vermicelli in Pakistan is a sheer delight

The end of Ramadan marks a seasonal spike in demand for the fine pasta strands which are the main ingredient in a number of popular dishes.

A Pakistani vendor packs vermicelli a traditional food cooked in sweet milk, ahead of Eid al-Fitr festival marking the end of Ramadan, in Peshawar, Pakistan.
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RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN // "It's Eid before Eid," Mian Ikramullah says excitedly as customers buy vermicelli at his shop.

Known locally as seviyan, it is one of the most sought after items in Pakistan at this time of year, as it has been an integral part of Eid breakfasts for centuries.

Eid Al Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, will be celebrated in Pakistan today or tomorrow and Ikramullah, who runs one of the major vermicelli shops in the old quarter of Rawalpindi, says his labourers have been working overtime to meet the demand.

"It's the busiest period of our business," says the 55-year-old. "We hardly have three hours sleep a day," he adds, pointing to huge bundles of vermicelli stacked along the walls.

Behind the shop, Mr Ikramullah has bought a sprawling house where he has set up his vermicelli-manufacturing factory.

Throughout the day, he shuttles between there and the shop to keep an eye on his workers.

"Give her a bit more, it's Eid," he tells one of his salesmen as a female customer asks for some extra vermicelli as an Eid bonus.

Inside the factory, long strands of vermicelli resembling thin ropes are hanging from dozens of wooden planks as a labourer, whose face and clothes are whitened with flour, puts flour into a machine to prepare the dough.

Explaining the art of vermicelli production, Mr Ikramullah says that many people make vermicelli with maida flour. But he uses a mixture of maida flour and semolina, known locally as suji. "The suji makes vermicelli crispy," he said.

Once the dough is prepared, it is put in another machine, which is fitted with a brass plate that shreds the dough into fine strands.

These strands are then laid out on wooden planks and placed in the sunshine to dry.

Sunlight is a must for vermicelli but Mr Ikramullah has also installed a gas-driven heating system in a room in case the sun disappears. Smaller vermicelli businesses do not have this facility.

"If there is no sunlight, then there is no work - it's a holiday for us," says Mohammad Mushtaq, a daily-wage labourer working at a small factory in the Ganjmandi area of the city.

When the strands come out of the cutting machine, they are split into pieces up to an arm's length and placed in big trays.

The trays are placed in the big oven where they are baked for up to three hours. Once they are done, they are gathered into bundles for packaging.

There are a variety of dishes made with vermicelli for Eid but a traditional vermicelli pudding, known as sheer khurma, is the most popular. It is served at breakfast, before the Eid prayers, and to guests throughout the day.

Vermicelli, sheer (milk), sugar and khurma (dates) are the main ingredients of the dish but almonds, coconut, rose water, pistachios and saffron are sometimes added.

"Can there be an Eid without seviyan?," asks Fehmida Begum, a customer at Ikramullah's shop.

Mr Ikramullah's family migrated from Amritsar in the Indian Punjab, to Rawalpindi after the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. His elder brother opened a vermicelli business in the 1960s and Mr Ikramullah took it over after his death.

Vermicelli making has continued to be a family business, as Mr Ikramullah's remaining three brothers have also set up vermicelli-manufacturing machines in Rawalpindi.

He says that his factory normally produces about a tonne of vermicelli a day. As Eid approaches, he ramps up production to more than two tonnes a day.

People also eat vermicelli during iftar and sahoor - the predawn meal - during Ramadan. Mr Ikramullah says that he earns good money from the vermicelli trade.

But he is not sure whether his children would follow in his footsteps.

"It is up to them whether they do it or not," he says as his five-year old son plays nearby with a tennis ball. "I will not force them."