Dubai: When Indian expatriate Bipin Johny first landed in the UAE in 2015, he felt homesick. The fast-paced life and unfamiliar faces were a stark contrast from his life in a small town in Kannur, an ancient trading port in the Indian state of Kerala. But soon, Johny found a remedy to his homesickness – restaurants in Dubai that served Kerala cuisine and the popular Sulaimani tea.
Sulaimani is much-loved in the UAE, consumed across nationalities... but where did it come from?
Coming back to Johny... he had finally found the much needed familiar connection. But, was surprised that this aromatic concoction of black tea with a dash of lemon juice or, sometimes, a pinch of cardamom or cinnamon, was such a common drink in the UAE too.
His very first cup of this amber-coloured fragrant tea in Dubai, instantly transported him back to the place he missed most, reminding him of a regular sight he grew up watching – his father sipping on a cup of Sulaimani chayya (chai or tea in Malayalam). “Papa needed his Sulaimani every half an hour,” Johny told the Food by Gulf News team.
“Back in Kannur, it was a regular thing we had at home, especially after heavy, greasy or oily meals. I was surprised that here in the UAE, people of other nationalities and from all walks of life had a common liking for this tea.”
So, it wasn’t surprising that Dubai’s Sulaimani tea became a regular part of Johny’s life. Six years later, the 30-year-old feels his day is incomplete without two to three cups of this hot beverage.
While in Johny’s house in Kannur, very little lemon was added to the tea, he said: “In other areas of Kannur and the neighbouring Kozhikode district, especially where there are large Muslim communities, the addition of lemon and spices is quite common.”
“I was never sure where the drink quite got the name, but I was pretty convinced it was because it came from the Muslim community in Thokkilangadi, a small village in Kannur. The area is now called Thaliparambu. It was this place in the Malabar region, which became popular for tea and tea time snacks like Mutta mala, a dish made of egg yolks, and mayyathappam or elanchi, a dish similar to crepes.”
Where did Sulaimani tea come from and how it reached Malabar
According to folklore, Sulaimani tea is believed to have Arab origins.
An article on Betterindia.com, an Indian news website, says that it’s journey began as a beverage that was popular in the Arab region. It was made with dates and black pepper.
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“Later, the beverage was brought to the southern Malabar coast of India by Arab traders who were frequent visitors there. The cultural intermingling that followed led to the addition of local spices and the replacement of dates with sugar. Somewhere along the line, tea was added to the drink,” the report added.
It was also in Malabar that this tea beverage started being called Sulaimani, according to the same report.
But, Sharjah expatriate Divya Ravindran, has another interesting theory. Divya who used to live in Kozhikode before moving to Sharjah in 2004, with her parents, remembers her grandmother joking that it was called Sulaimani tea because Sulaimanikka, down the street sold it at his tea shop. Ikka is a word commonly used in the Malabar region to address male elders.
Sulaimani chai returns to the UAE and becomes a staple
The discovery of oil brought with it an influx of workers from India from the mid-1960s onward. Many came via sea, a trip of about three days from Bombay (now Mumbai) to Dubai. Many of them were from the state of Kerala.
Indian migration to the UAE drastically increased in the 1970s and 1980s, with the expansion of the oil industry and the growth of free trade in Dubai. Many of them were traders and workers from the state of Kerala, as well as the Sindhi community.
With this migration, the sulaimani chai returned to the streets of the UAE in its new form and became important for Emiratis. Chef Musabbeh Al Kaabi, the Executive Oriental Chef at Dubai's Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, told Gulf News Food team: “For most Emirati households, Sulaimani is served after every meal, especially after lunch. I think if you ask any Emirati above the age of 30, most of them have Sulaimani every day.”
My family used to live in Hatta. I was a small boy when the Hatta Fort Hotel was being built in the early 1980’s. At that time, many Indians were helping in the construction of the hotel, and we used to cross them on our way to our farm nearby. I remember seeing them taking breaks with cups of tea. They used to offer it to my father too. At that time I didn’t know it was called Sulaimani.
Recalling how this tea became a part of his life, the 45-year-old chef said: “My family used to live in Hatta. I was a small boy when the Hatta Fort Hotel was being built in the early 1980’s. At that time, many Indians were helping in the construction of the hotel, and we used to cross them on our way to our farm nearby. I remember seeing them taking breaks with cups of tea. They used to offer it to my father too. At that time I didn’t know it was called Sulaimani.
“Earlier, travelling to Dubai was not a regular thing. Going to Dubai on a camel would take three nights and four days from Hatta. Our elders used to take things like good quality tobacco that we harvested and charcoal, to Dubai and exchange it for basics like rice, sugar, flour, etc. While visiting Dubai, we would see expatriate shopkeepers sitting outside and drinking Sulaimani. As transportation became common, more people started coming to Hatta and with it the Sulaimani tea travelled to these interior regions as well.”
He added: “Looking back, I think I regularly started drinking Sulaimani tea when I was 25. Now, I drink it daily after lunch and dinner.”
Pakistani expatriate Arshad Ali, who came to the UAE in 1985, told Gulf News: "It was a common scene when I came to the UAE, traders sitting outside their shops with a thermos (hot flask) of sulaimani and a plate of sugar cubes, they would take a sip out of their sulaimani cups and suck the sugar cube. I have heard stories of how, in the 1950s and 1960s, much before I came, the sulaimani had become a popular drink among the South Asian trader community, as it did not need any milk or sugar, which were expensive and difficult to source at that time."
Gradually, the drink became a popular beverage in cafeterias.
'The right way to end a meal'
For Aneez Adam, a restaurateur based out of Kozhikode and Sharjah, a cup of Sulaimani, “is the perfect end to everything good in life”.
He said: “You can have the world's best biryani for lunch, but it will touch your heart only if it is rounded off with a piping hot Sulaimani. You can have the best conversation with your friends, but unless you have a glass of Sulaimani to sip through, it is just not enough. Late night preparations for exams become more rewarding if you have a cup of Sulaimani beside you for comfort. Feeling under the weather? Sulaimani it is! For people from Malabar, life moves forward with Sulaimani.”
Meanwhile, 36-year-old Vibitha Sanjith said: "A sulaimani tea with mint is the perfect way to end a meal, especially a heavy one."
How to brew the perfect cup of Sulaimani
So, how do you brew yourself a nice cup of Sulaimani tea at home? Aneez Adam, who owns Adaminte Chayakada, a restaurant that serves Moplah cuisine in Kozhikode, added: “My take is that there is no correct way of brewing Sulaimani tea. Your way is the right way. You may like it with a dash of lemon or with a pinch of cinnamon or some mint leaves. The recipe and flavours change with your mood and a Sulaimani can never go wrong!”
But, for the uninitiated, he shared his recipe.
Boil a cup of water in a milk pan and as it begins to bubble, add 1/4 teaspoon of your favourite tea dust. Add your preferred sweetener along with one or two of the following.
Have an itchy throat? Add an inch of fresh ginger. After a heavy meal? Add some mint leaves.
Feeling a bit blue? Add a small stick of cinnamon.
Or, just want a warm beverage for comfort? Add a dash of honey and lemon, Adam suggested.
Divya Ravindran shared a different recipe.
She said: "Boil two cups of water. To this add a teaspoon of finely chopped ginger, 2 pieces of cinnamon, 2 split pieces of cardamom, 4 cloves, and sugar to taste. Bring to a boil and turn off the stove.
"Now, add 1/2 teaspoon of tea leaves, 4 drops of lemon juice and let the tea steep for 3 minutes. Strain and serve hot."
Have your own recipe for Sulaimani tea or another interesting recipe to share with us? Write to us on email@example.com.