I stumble droopy-eyed out of a Toyota Hilux truck onto the Dubai-Al Ain highway. It is 5.24AM, and the only elixir that can possibly make me human at this hour lies in the Al Ain Way Cafeteria. A disembodied voice squawks ‘ek cup karak chai please’ – I cough sheepishly as I realize the voice is mine – followed by a deeper voice that echoes my order in Malayalam. The Malayali command unleashes a flurry of movement behind a white arched window: a hand clasping a Styrofoam cup darts towards the copper panelled samovar, unleashes a wild gush of steaming black tea, a second hand swoops over it with a trail of evaporated milk.
Old Dubai runs on blood, sweat, tears and karak. Karak, a diminutive word for the Indian-born karak chai or chai karak, is that democratizing drink that fuels Dubai: the jewellers and tailors of Meena Bazaar, workers on construction sites, fishmongers in Al Ras, hot-blooded race-car youth in Jumeirah and Satwa and middle-class Indian families seated al fresco in Mankhool. Most cups of the sweet milky beverage are brewed by free-standing Keralite cafeterias and slurped road-side or in air-conditioned cars that roll up for drive-through service. The Filli franchise was one of the first to pioneer a home-grown chai café concept for the patron seeking a more dine-in, or more appropriately, ‘drink-in’, experience.
Chai cafeterias may pour the drink for pocket change, often one or two dirhams, but what they lose on margins they make up for in volume. While many of the cafeterias are tight-lipped about their books of business, a few will disclose that they sell hundreds of cups of chai every day. The more popular stalls boost volumes in thousands, with one cafeteria in Meena Bazaar claiming a 1,500 cups, and another near the Spice Souk clocking in at about 2,000 cups. According to the cashier at Al Ain Way Cafeteria, they unleash a tsunami of about 4,000-5,000 cups every day. But for those customers thirsty for accuracy, these statistics need to be filtered through a fine sieve of scepticism. Most busy chai cashiers have no time or appetite to mull over numbers other than the change you need to be returned for a one dirham cup of chai.
The more accommodating cafeterias might offer advice if you feign distress over being incapable of brewing chai as perfect as theirs in your humble home kitchen. Some reveal that they brew a mix of different black tea leaves – two or more of the usual suspects: Lipton, Brooke Bond, Leone or Alokozay – in sweetened water even before their first sleepy patron stumbles in through the door. The infusion is stored in giant copper or steel kettles over burners that have earned the blackened crust of lifetime service. Jamarik Cafeteria, which has been pouring chai since 1968, swears by a Russian samovar to steep their quality cup. Some add cardamom by default, while others add the pods for an additional fifty fils or a dirham that is well worth the spiced aroma.
But there is so much more than what a cafeteria will ever disclose about attaining an immaculate cup of chai that is not bitter, weak or bland. The right quantity of tea leaves should be plunged in at the right stage of boiling and steeped for the right duration before adding in the right quantity of milk that complements, rather than overpowers the brew. Success comes to those cafeterias who respect ratios, aromas and intuition.
Many cafeterias in Meena Bazaar offer the original chai as prepared in India, also called ‘fresh milk chai,’ where regular milk is boiled along with water, sugar, tea leaves and spices for a richer, harmonious infusion. But the majority of cafeterias around the city rely on the time-saving technique of streaming in Rainbow or Carnation evaporated milk after the black tea has been boiled, strained and ready to pour.
Chai etymology is as important as technique. The word ‘chai’ finds its birthplace not in colonial India where the British introduced tea cultivation in the 19th century, but in China from where the British procured sacks of precious green tea leaves (‘cha’ in Cantonese). As a reaction to the threat of losing the monopoly over the Chinese tea trade, the British turned their sights to India as a potential cultivator for these sought-after leaves. By the close of the century, India had effectively quenched a major share of the British thirst for tea with their robust, oxidized black tea leaves.
In the Gulf region, chai is often referred to as ‘karak.’ Ironically, if you were to approach a person in India to inquire after the best ‘karak,’ you would be poured nothing but a blank, clueless expression. Karak literally means ‘hard’ or ‘stiff’ and can be used to describe everything from a heavily starched shirt to a disciplinary dorm master. When appended to the word ‘chai,’ karak suggests a drink made more potent by steeping the leaves for longer or by diluting with less milk. It is only plausible that when the Arabs in the Gulf overheard the Indian expatriate community ordering their cups of karak chai or ‘strong tea,’ they assumed that the name of this heavily sugared milk infusion was ‘karak’.
The sweetness in a street-side cup of karak chai is nothing short of cavity-inducing. One kettle handler whispered that he adds at least one heaped spoonful of sugar per chai – though I strongly suspect his spoon is a ladle. The sugar becomes an inseparable part of the beverage since it is added in at the nascent stage of boiling the water. Should you commit the unimaginable faux-pas of requesting a low-sugar or sugar-free chai, cafeterias will punish your insolent deviation with an insipid cup of watery milk and a limp tea bag.
Far from being submerged in old town obscurity, karak chai has seeped its way into local food culture and is a staple drink in Emirati homes and restaurants. Moneyed diners in Downtown, City Walk and Box Park are sipping dainty cups of karak that deliver an appropriate jolt, less because of their potency and more because of their price tag, which can be anywhere from ten to a staggering twenty-five dirhams a cup. The drink has spilled past its traditional Styrofoam construct to inspire ice cream flavours, cakes and cronut fillings. It is encouraging to see this Old Dubai drink being savoured across the city, though one can only wish for it to be poured at a price that doesn’t make wallets run dry.
Thankfully, the chai at Al Ain Way Cafeteria is still pegged at the Old Dubai standard of one dirham.
The hands behind the window rest the Rainbow milk can down, stir briskly and slide the tawny elixir onto the counter facing me. A sip later, the sleepy haze over my eyes finally starts to dissipate.
Arva Ahmed offers guided tours revealing Dubai’s culinary hideouts (visit fryingpanadventures.com). She writes weekly in Friday on the UAE’s culinary legacy and highlights.