On the counter dedicated to sweets at Chembur’s Jhama Sweets, sev barfi sits right at the end, after the malai and mango variants, milk cake, Karachi halwa and pedas. The spot allocated to the sweet, the fastest-moving item at the store, is based on convenience — it allows the staff to easily replace the empty aluminum trays with a fresh batch every couple of hours. Sev barfi, in Mumbai, is synonymous with Jhama. A mix of sweetened gooey mawa, chopped nuts, a hint of rose essence and unsalted sev that adds to the texture of the sweet, it is a Sindhi specialty made popular by this 70-year-old establishment. “My father introduced sev barfi to this city,” says Vicky J Lulla, who co-owns Jhama Sweets with his elder brother Govind.
Jhamamal Sadhuram Lulla was 24 when Partition uprooted the family from Sindh’s Larkana district. The Lullas arrived in Bombay as refugees and moved into a camp set up in Chembur, which was then the outskirts of the city. A few months later, in need for employment, Lulla started to weigh his options. “Even as a young boy in Sindh, my dad used to help his maternal uncles with their sweets business. He decided to pursue the same line here,” explains Vicky.
As the refugees turned into permanent settlers, the neighbourhood came to be dominated by Sindhis and Punjabis. Lulla saw more potential for his business. Not only are both the communities known to like sweets but no celebration or festival is also complete without mithai. He set up a tiny stall that sold sev barfi and gulab jamun.
That neighbourhood, which has since come to be known as Chembur Camp, is today dotted with food establishments. Most of these are at least half-a-century old and known for their Sindhi specialties. For decades, Jhama was the only sweets shop in the city selling sev barfi and people would travel all the way from different parts of Mumbai to purchase their specialty.
“When Dad started out, he was the only person running the business. He would do everything from making the sweets to selling them. Even when business flourished, he kept the variety limited. He was of the firm belief that we should offer fewer items but our best so that the customers do not have trouble choosing,” says the 49-year-old.
That started to change as the market began to evolve and their clientele became more diverse. Today, Jhama Sweets has nine branches across the city and sells a variety of sweets, including Rajasthani and Bengali sweets. The main branch, which is now a 500-feet store, sells a variety of farsan and also has live counters for Sindhi and Punjabi snacks like chhole pattice, dahi bhalla and samosas. When Vicky joined the business in the 1990s, he helped his elder brother take Jhama Sweets outside Chembur. Now, his nephew Ravi, the third generation in the business, is exploring the possibility of a centralised manufacturing unit.
The Lullas are not scared of competition. They believe it boosts business because “that way, people can try out other places and come back to us knowing we are the best”. “We have remained consistent and our patrons value that. Salman Khan’s staff often purchases sweets from our store when they are on their way to the actor’s Panvel farmhouse. Amitabh Bachchan has gone on record to say the gulab jamun from Jhama is his favourite. The Kapoors, whose RK Studios is around the corner, have been our patrons for decades,” he adds.
The sev barfi remains Jhama’s most popular item. Vicky explains that the trick is in getting the texture of the sev right. “We make the sev a day before and allow the excess oil to be drained. The sev has to be added when the temperature of the mixture is right. It should not be too soggy nor too crisp.”