Call it karak gentrification. Three years ago, Ras Al Khaimah’s Old Town was a forgotten neighbourhood. Now, anyone who comes to the fish market after dark will struggle to find parking.
Lights flash, horns beep, and drivers roll down their tinted windows to exchange gossip and news with friends and neighbours who have come here from mountainside towns and desert farms.
The reason for all this mayhem? “I’ll tell you what’s the reason,” says one of these customers, Muna Al Mansoori. “Chai karak.”
The Gulf’s affection for India’s cardamom milk tea is no secret and is a key ingredient for the subculture of ‘rounding’, cruising around with friends while drinking tea or eating takeaway.
In recent months, this traditional fishing neighbourhood has been revived by karak shops started by young entrepreneurs, both Emiratis and those whose families have lived there for generations.
Ms Al Mansoori, 36, was parked near the Ras Al Khaimah fish market, waiting for her order with her two sisters. “They break the law to get the tea and park anywhere just for this tea,” she said, looking at the cars parked up the road.
“Locals are very foodie,” nodded her younger sister, Ameera.
The National counted more than 26 new takeaway restaurants and cafeterias on the creek and the old Corniche at the northern edge of the Ras Al Khaimah peninsula. Many have opened in the last six months.
Competition breeds innovation and in this neighbourhood you can get honey-sweetened karak, hot-chocolate karak, karak served in a glass and karak served with a dollop of pistachio ice cream and a dash of green food colouring just to remind your pancreas to be on notice.
The first and original cafe that specialised in karak is Malik Al Karak (“The king of karak”) and then there are imitators, like Carak Al Maliki (“kingly karak”). But the most famous and busiest of karakeries is Nena Tea, located across from the fish market. Nena Tea is said to have kick-started the karak craze when it’s owner, already famous on Snapchat for his insider tours of Ras Al Khaimah, opened it in late 2015. Easa Al Ali had a simple idea: karak for fishermen.
“When he put this shop here we asked him, ‘why did you put this shop here’?” said Sheikh Mohammed Zaki, 21, a mechanical engineering graduate, Nena Tea patron and karak aficionado, who was raised in the UAE. “I told him nobody is going to come here. It was dead, you know, it was dead. This place was black and white. But I can tell you one thing, now people are dying to come.”
What Mr Zaki had underestimated was the attraction of the empty parking lot.
Karak is always ordered from the vehicle and sipped while cruising around the town or parked at a beach.
A bigger parking lot is the equivalent to more tables at a restaurant. This is why karak places on the beautifully landscaped Al Qawasim Corniche remain less popular. Only one or two vehicles can be served at once and nobody wants to drink their karak inside a building.
So a parking lot and underdeveloped spaces become an important part in business success.
That, and Mr Al Ali makes excellent tea. Mr Al Ali started the business with his partner Abdul Hameed Mohammad. Both are karak mad and took a year sampling different karaks in the Gulf.
“There’s too many shops here that are doing the karak,” says Mr Al Ali, 23, a graduate of the RAK Men’s college. “They don’t know what is the karak, they don’t know what is the taste. My mother is Indian and I’m crazy with the Indian food and also I’m crazy with the Indian karak.”
Mr Al Ali spent two months in Kerala (“because it’s the mother of tea") and Hyderabad (“so many masters of tea there") before he created an amalgamation of what he identifies as three distinct karak varieties, Emirati, India and Gulf. The secret is a slow brew, fresh milk and powdered saffron. He believes in low prices. How can a chai master charge extra for saffron, he reasons, when it should be an essential ingredient?
The cafeteria has a number of teas popular in the Gulf, like hibiscus tea and Kashmiri tea, but it’s karak that sells 1,500 cups on a slow day.
Mr Ali also credits low rent and government support for his business’ success. He pays Dh27,000 for his small shop.
Infrastructure has also improved with new roads making the old Corniche better for cruising from one karak place to the next.
Once Easa opened, others followed. After the karak, came the restaurants.
Five months ago, Imran Ahmed opened the Jabal Al Jalid Cafeteria to sell the same flavoured ices and dahi puri, crispy puri bread topped in chickpeas, tamarind chutney, chili, yoghurt and coriander. He uses the same recipe his father and grandfather used for their eight-foot food cart in Mumbai.
His father left Mumbai for Ras Al Khaimah 21 years ago, following a sister who married an Emirati.
Today, street food is considered better than an office job. He has plans to open five more businesses in this district, including a biryani house. The only challenge is the hours, says Mr Ahmed. In the old town, midnight is far busier than midday.
“Business in India, you go to the street at 10am and come back at 5pm,” says Mr Ahmed, who is 30. “In Ras Al Khaimah, there is no time.”
Shahnawaz Shaikh, 31, runs Molten Tac, a takeaway restaurant that serves tacos and molten cake. But demand for karak was so high that the business owner opened a karak shop next door three months ago. “So many people were asking,” says Mr Shaikh.
His brother works at a new takeaway burger restaurant on the Old Corniche and they have plans to open another shop “with sushi and everything”.
Entrepreneurship runs in his family. His aunt opened a beauty parlour in Digdagga decades ago and multiple generations of his family have travelled back and forth between India and the UAE for trade and family.
Both Mr Ahmed and Mr Shaikh have first cousins with Emirati citizenship.
This neighbourhood of Ras Al Khaimah, from which the emirate takes its name, has always been a place that's attracted traders and families from different backgrounds, known for its Iranian market and the Sheikh Mohammed bin Salem Al Qasimi mosque where sheikhs and labourers still pray side by side. The men who lived here were polyglot traders who sailed the Indian Ocean until the 1950s.
These retired mariners continued to come when the trade slowed, driving in from distant neighbourhoods to play cards and drink tea. Now, they are in good company.