Tea – the second-most consumed beverage in the world after water – has a special place in the UAE. More specifically, a flavoured tea called chai karak, which transcends emirates and borders too, from Ras Al Khaimah to Muscat in Oman – you can spot a karak shop from a mile off. The long line of cars crowding tiny cafeterias and beeping their horns is a dead giveaway.
The catalyst for this round-the-clock vehicular mayhem is a small Styrofoam or paper cup filled with a liquid guaranteed to give you comfort and a kick-start.
It is a simple formula: loose tea leaves brewed with spices, brought to the boil and simmered with evaporated milk.
Karak arrived in the UAE with the Indian diaspora in the 1960s, during the time oil was discovered in the region. The local population took to this hot, creamy drink from the outset, adding their own touch to it and naming it chai karak. For those who don't know, karak means hard or strong in Hindi.
Soon, roadside cafes began to spring up and the drink became a dailyritual, bordering on necessity, for some. From youngsters showing off their cars as they sip the tea on a night out to lorry drivers for whom a cup of karak is a 4am pick-me-up, the drink has become ingrained in UAE culture.
Most drinkers of the tea have a preferred blend of flavours, and what spices should be included and how much of each, can prove to be a point of contention.
Marwan Parham Al Awadhi, better known as DJ Bliss, can't live without his daily dose of karak. The 37-year-old Dubai DJ and TV presenter is a regular drinker, and he loves the stuff so much that he made a fun track about it. The record was picked up and used in an advert for Rainbow's Qubez – an instant karak drink made by adding hot water.
Bliss’s obsession with the spiced drink began at home, where he says he often sipped the tea in the company of his parents on a Friday.
“The next thing I knew I was trying out different places,” Bliss says. “I liked it so much I made this song about it. I like coffee as well, but I think coffee is a bit too strong and it gets you kind of too excited sometimes.”
The popular drink spans all cultures and is available almost everywhere. "If it's a wedding or an office, or anywhere they want to be hospitable, drinks on offer would be red tea, Arabic coffee or karak," Bliss says. "People drink it all day. That's why in the song, I say, 'I need a karak in the morning, I need a karak in the evening', there's literally no right or wrong."
If you’re new to the concoction, to follow Bliss’s at-home method, you need only “throw in some loose tea, boil it with hot water, then put some condensed milk in there. Then, depending on what flavour I want, I either cut up some ginger, crush up some cardamom or put in some saffron”.
When he's buying it, though, he says: "My favourites happen to be right in front of my office and right behind my barbershop. You want to drive up, be able to wait, beep your horn. The guy comes out and gives it to you, or you can find parking. Ease of access plays a major role."
In an emirate where there seems to be a new coffee shop opening up on every corner every other week, Dubai's Project Chaiwala is satisfyingly different. Friends Justin Joseph and Ahmed Kazim decided after a visit to India that they wanted to bring the feel of the streets of South Asia to Dubai.
Should you head down to their Burj Park, Downtown Dubai station, you will be treated to tea as it is served in India. A chaiwala pours the piping hot liquid into the cup, swooping and moving his hands apart and together while a small crowd watches on.
“We keep it authentic and real, using the original recipes and products and transplanting it into an urban culture,” Kazim says. “Our shop brings people who have been brought up outside their country back to their roots. It’s also for the people who have grown up in Dubai. The city has grown so quickly, karak just takes them back to their old days; to their old neighbourhoods when life was more simple.”
To keep the project authentic, the team travelled to South Asia to find their chaiwalas.
“We went on a hunt, basically. We were looking for people who knew tea and who knew the culture. Being a chaiwala takes skill, it’s very visual and friendly. So being selective when choosing and training our staff was very important.”
Naturally, karak is Kazim’s favourite beverage. “I am Emirati and it’s become ingrained in UAE culture,” he says. “Tea is a big part of our lives. We gather around the table post-lunch, very much like the English do with an afternoon tea.”
Like the thousands of other karak enterprises across the country, many of which are found in Khalidiya and the old parts of Abu Dhabi, the Project Chaiwala team has put its own twist on the drink. "It's actually sweeter, but not too sweet."
Brewing tea at Project Chaiwala is a serious business. “It takes us an hour and a half to two hours to prepare every batch, so it’s not just your average cup of tea. There is a lot more to it. We can also custom-make your tea to your preference. More tea, more ginger, whatever you want,” Kazim says.
As well as the outlet in Downtown Dubai, there is a roving kiosk that takes up residence at many of the region's food festivals. There are plans afoot for a permanent shop in the not-too-distant future, too.
Another karak stop worth exploring is Filli cafe, which has expanded its presence right across the UAE.
When Rafih Filli took over his father’s small hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Dubai’s Al Mamzar, little did he know that a simple cup of karak would change his life.
He came up with his own secret recipe, changed the sign on the wall and Filli cafe was born. "My dad left the country when the cafeteria started failing, so I stepped in to help run it," Filli told The National in a previous interview.
“I was only 21 then. After three months, I added tea to the menu – tea the way I like it.”
It took a while to convince the customers to come in and try the new flavours. “They were unsure because they didn’t get why tea tasted so flavourful,” he says. “The crowd that was coming were the staff of the local families living in the area. They thought I was adding something extra.”
After a month of playing around with the recipe and offering free samples to those visiting the cafe, Filli began to attract a steady daily stream of loyal customers.
News about the taste of his drink soon spread. There are currently 27 Filli outlets across the UAE, and the little Al Mamzar start-up now serves about 5,000 cups of tea a day.