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A steaming cup of karak tea or chai has long been a tradition for many residents in the UAE. The styrofoam cup, the copper panelled pot, the wild gush of black tea and finally, the trail of milk for extra creaminess that gives you life.

Most karak chai scenarios involve you standing outside surrounded by honking Land Cruisers and impatient customers waiting in their car for a ‘chaiwala’ (teaboy) to bring their order out. It does not get any more old-school UAE than that.

Ahmad Kazim and Justin Joseph founded Project Chaiwala so they could import the authentic chai experience into an urban space. It all started with an office tradition. They were sitting high in a skyscraper in the concrete jungle of Dubai. They were colleagues working in the financial sector and would occasionally take a chai break between their hectic schedules and client meetings. These chai breaks were an opportunity to take a step back, relax and recharge.

“Chai has always been an escape for me. It puts me in a happy zone.” Kazim told Gulf News tabloid!. “We recognised a need within Dubai’s bustling urban sphere for spaces where people can have those much-needed breaks. So Project Chaiwala was born.”

Fast forward two years and after multiple trips to tea gardens in Darjeeling, India, where all of their organic tea is sourced from, over 20 successful pop-up events and more than 20,000 cups of chai later, Project Chaiwala has opened its first permanent concept, created as a Chai Diner nestled in the same space as Cinema Akil in Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz. “We are not just an F&B outlet, we are an experience with the chaiwalas at the centre of it” Joseph told Gulf News tabloid!.

Modesty is not the normal attitude of artsy cafes in Dubai. Project Chaiwala. however, is exactly that; modest, understated and casual. It has a little round sign outside the cafe, written in small font and a logo of a teapot. You might miss it, if you rush past, but make sure you don’t. Because this cafe tucked away in the corner of Alserkal is definitely worth your time.

Before we take a seat to chat about Project Chaiwala, Kazim, who speaks fluent Urdu, says to the chaiwala, “Ek karak chai, bari meherbani [one cup of karak tea please]”.

Then we make our way to Cinema Akil and I get comfortable on a red and gold armchair. “All the food on this menu is designed to be paired with chai. Like the vada pav or masala fries go very well with a cup.”

“When you’re in India, getting a cup of chai is a very personal interaction. If you’re a usual customer, your chaiwala knows exactly how you want your tea. And with Project Chaiwala, the idea was to import the chaiwala experience into a central and modern space,” said Kazim.

I quickly realised that my ‘usual order’ would definitely be their PCW signature tea, which is sweeter and stronger than the other options on the menu. It had a hint of chocolate and clove. Just the cup of sweet warmth that I needed that afternoon.

The space is located right by the entrance of Cinema Akil. So you’ll need to walk through Project Chaiwala, to get to the theatre hall of the independent cinema venue. “A big reason we chose Al Serkal Avenue was because we wanted to expose this chai experience to a different kind of crowd. Usually, Emiratis and South Asians are the biggest advocates for chai, but by being here, we can have other nationalities try out this tradition.” said Kazim. “Back in the day when visiting old cinemas in Bur Dubai, instead of eating popcorn and drinking a soda, people used to eat samosas and have a cup of chai. Having a chaiwala in the cinema space means you can relive those authentic moments today.”

Before Project Chaiwala started two years ago, the pair travelled to India to truly experience the real process of chai.

“When we went to Darjeeling, we were going with a purpose to find the tea that would be a perfect fit for us, flavour wise and quality wise. We also wanted to explore the suppliers, to make sure the working conditions were ethical,” he said. “We run a very social enterprise and regularly donate a portion of our profits to charitable causes, like education or providing children with access to clean drinking water. If anyone chooses to buy our clay kulhar cups, the money goes to improving the socio-economic status of women in vulnerable communities.”

A cup of karak chai at Project Chaiwala will cost you Dh12, which is a premium price for a usually Dh1 ticket item. Therefore, before committing to a permanent destination, these guys made sure that people were ready to pay a little more. “We started off with pop-ups at first, in order to test the market and see if they were willing to pay more for a cup of karak. We were thankfully very successful and that’s why we decided to take the next step and open a permanent spot” said Kazim.

“We both had the ambition of starting a business and shared stories and lessons from successful people and then one day just decided to create our own story” said Joseph.

The Chaiwala area seats 30 people. However, during the day, Cinema Akil is open and available for anyone to make themselves comfortable in until show time.

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Quick take with Ahmad Kazim, co-founder of Project Chaiwalla

How do you like your karak?

Extra tea, extra sugar.

Favourite thing to eat on your menu?

The spicy chana.

Where do you like to travel to eat?

India. It’s the land of everything.

Best chai memory?

Drinking chai before I went horse-riding as a young boy.

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Quick take with Justin Joseph co-founder of Project Chaiwalla

How do you like your karak?

I take my chai as multiple shots of karak in our sample cups over a day. These are known as driver shots.

Favourite thing to eat on your menu?

Cheese toast and Nutella toast.

Where do you like to travel to eat?

Street food anywhere in the world. Dream destination is Japan.

Best chai memory?

Chai reminds me of lazy evenings with my childhood friends, just hanging and people watching while growing up in Bur Dubai.