In a tiny flat in the bowels of Royapettah, Mushtaba’s family is carrying out a 200-year-old tradition. Seated on the floor, she kneads the maida dough, calling out instructions to her husband Barkath Ali. She has been waiting all year for the month of Ramzan. This is her chance to earn and contribute to the family. Every year, hundreds of Muslim women in Triplicane and Royapettah, start preparing the rumani semiya weeks ahead of Ramzan. The vermicelli will be sold by their husbands and sons and sometimes, by themselves, in the streets of Triplicane.
Making the rumani semiya is a back-breaking task and yet, families look forward to it. “It’s been the same routine as long as I can remember,” says Mushtaba, punching a medium-sized ball of dough. “I would knead three to five kilograms of maida with water and salt the previous night and wake up early in the morning to prepare the semiya.”
The fine vermicelli is made entirely by hand. It’s a fascinating process. Mushtaba pinches bits of dough from a clump in her hand, sticks it back and repeats till the mass is almost elastic. She then pulls it apart, holding the length with both hands, folding it in and out, in and out, till she achieves 12 uniform strips. She entwines them and pulls it like a rubber band — in less than 30 seconds, following a series of elastic tugs, the fine, hair-thin vermicelli emerge, which she drapes on a wooden rod that her husband hangs out to dry under a fan. In a few minutes, he rolls it on his palm and places it on a cot to dry further. The vermicelli can be made with rava as well, but even the most experienced makers of rumani semiya tend to falter if rava is mixed to the dough.
“It’s a lot of work,” sighs Mushtaba. “I sometimes count the days for Eid so I can rest, although I enjoy doing this.” There are certain unwritten rules when it comes to the making of the rumani semiya. “The dough should never change hands,” warns Mushtaba. “I remember my mother would never let me touch it when I was a little girl,” she explains. “She would say that every hand lent a unique touch to the dough and that it should never be disturbed. I would take a blob of dough and lock myself in a room and practise,” she laughs. The consistency of the dough is everything, so is the temperament of the person handling it. “If one is angry, for instance, and sits to make it, the semiya will never come out well. I’ve thrown sway several kilos of dough when they didn’t cooperate,” she observes.
During the last week of Ramzan, thousands of rumani semiya circles are sold in Triplicane; a kilogram is priced at Rs.180 to 250, depending on the size and density of the vermicelli.
“We mostly sell out every year,” says Barkath, who puts his tyres business on hold to help his wife’s vermicelli venture every year. He knows that she has a gift, which, however, has not been passed on to his daughter Heena. “I’ve just come to watch,” shrugs the 28-year-old and adds, “There’s no way I can do what mother does.” Mushtaba chuckles: “This one doesn’t have the patience.”
Mushtaba earns around Rs.20,000 every year from the business. “I use it to buy something for the kids for Ramzan,” she smiles. “Shoes, clothes… It feels nice to buy whatever they ask for.”
The vermicelli goes into making the sheer khurma, which is used to break the fast on Eid. Mushtaba recalls the recipe. “We deep fry the semiya in ghee or dalda and set aside. It’s added to a pan of milk, that’s simmered with sugar and khoa. A mix of crushed nuts such as cashews and pista is added to the dish,” she explains. “It’s delicious; makes all the hard work worth it.”