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June 23, 2020

Flat rice-making, a disappearing profession


June 23, 2020

HYDERABAD: Akhtar Hussain Bhogri’s family may be the only survivor from the line of workers, who contributed a lot in their life time to manufacture flattened rice (value-added product), locally called peenhon (beaten rice) in Hala New, Matiari district.

Despite ups and downs in the food market, and changing mindsets with mushrooming fast food chains, flat rice is still available in local markets of all towns, cities and larger villages in Matiari, Hyderabad and other districts.

Flattened rice is a popular food in South Asian countries and there are various local recipes to prepare it under different names. Here in Sindh, women use ghee, cardamom, sugar and a little water to make it aromatic. Some people love to have it in breakfast, while others prefer to have a little after lunch or dinner. Until recently, it was also part of the Eid menu, or cooked on weddings and other special occasions.

Hussain, originally from Old Hala, a riverine town in Matiari district, sells the product for Rs120/kg from a small retailer shop in Hala New town. Earlier, there he owned a small workshop where four-five workers remained busy from dawn to dusk to beat the rice for flattening it.

Now, Hussain said they have shifted their small workshop to their home, where family members work together to prepare the product for the market. His family has been associated with the business for generations.

Bhogri told uncomfortably that a few years ago, local shopkeepers objected to the workshop in a congested area. Rice is parboiled before flattening. The workshop produced a lot of heat because of the boiling rice. Also, after boiling, the rice is beaten with a heavy wooden hammer, which created disturbance for some shopkeepers.

“When the shopkeepers started objecting, we shifted our work area and tools so keep our tradition alive,” he said, while claiming that his family has been associated with making this special food product for seven generations.

Peenhon is a special dish from Sindh, which is made by high quality rice locally called Sugdasi, basmati and kangri. Presently, these indigenous rice varieties either have vanished completely from the province or only a few landlord families have kept it for farming for personal consumption and selling a little in the market.

These peenhon manufacturers are known as Bhogri (sub-caste as per profession). They put boiled rice measuring 10-20kg in a large earthen pot called Okhra, where the labour beat through heavy wooden hammer. That is why the product is called beaten rice.

Now machines have replaced human work to beat boiled rice to make peenhon. Each workshop can produce 5-10 maund daily, depending on its capacity and demand in market. Scale of the workshops has now reduced due to lower demand.

Akhtar Hussain said low demand and lack of high quality indigenous rice to prepare the product were the reasons this profession was disappearing.

Bhogris used to collect high-quality indigenous rice from different parts of the province to prepare flat rice, but those varieties have disappeared from the market. “We don’t hire many people any more, as there is no point in preparing a large quantity,” he explained.

Since hybrid and genetically modified (GM) varieties of rice have flooded the markets, farmers’ report that they have also adapted accordingly to meet the demand of the local and foreign markets. As a result, almost all prominent rice producers and landlords have lost these indigenous varieties locally known as sugdasi, basmati and kangri. They use hybrid seeds, which are not suitable for flat rice production.

Around 15-20 years ago, Old Hala had 12 factories to prepare flat rice. Before that, around 1950s there were around 32-35 such workshops. Many of the old families who had flat rice workshops have now shifted to other professions.

Hala also has many other traditional handlooms, pottery, and other workshops where jandi (wooden colourful products), ajrak and other handicraft products are made.

Shakeel Abro, director Sindh Indigenous and Traditional Crafts Company (SITCO), said demand of beaten rice has declined, which might have compelled these workshops to shutdown. “This specific rice-based value-added product is easy to cook, and can be preserved for a long time. But with many changes taking place at the local as well as global level, such indigenous food products were getting wiped out.”

Abro expressed his fear that there would be a time when many of these products, including flat rice, would completely disappear from the market, especially without incentives and government support. “Many people who are associated with traditional professions are losing their livelihoods,” he added.