Dubai: It’s around 4.30pm on a winter evening in the UAE.
The queue of tea lovers waiting for their favourite cuppa outside a cafeteria in Ras Al Khor is getting longer.
Inside the tea joint, two employees are busy preparing their fastest moving item—karak tea, a hot beverage that is equally popular among Emiratis and expats.
A big bowl of water (almost three litres) is kept on the gas stove for boiling. The tea powder, a secret mix, is then added to the boiling water, followed by two spoons of cardamom powder.
In another water jug, one cup of sugar and two litres of tetra pack milk are mixed and then added to the boiling tea. After the flavoured mixture brews to the brim, it is strained into a large flask.
Each cup of hot tea poured from the flask is then topped with a dab of saffron powder.
Voila! The popular Dh1 drink is ready for the patrons.
Piping hot, sweet karak tea is considered a daily necessity by many in the UAE.
From the nondescript, hole-in the-wall cafeterias in old Dubai areas to stylish cafes in Downtown Dubai and swanky restaurants in Jumeirah, karak tea is one of the most moving items in Dubai eateries with prices ranging from Dh1 to a staggering Dh25.
Most UAE joints selling karak chai, as it is known among expats from the Indian subcontinent, have a long queue of customers, especially in winter. Hundreds of thousands of residents enjoy their favourite beverage in the chilly mornings and evenings.
If a tea maker adds 100g sugar in one litre water, the end result in one cup of tea an individual would be consuming would be 20g sugar which is 4tsp.
The sweet lure
But, as you sip your hot cuppa, have you ever thought about how much sugar goes in it?
The UAE’s most popular hot beverage may not be made in as simple steps as explained above in all the outlets.
It gets loaded with sugar in various ways at most outlets that sell karak tea like hot cakes during winter.
The heavily-sugared milk infusion has remained out of the radar even as the government recently introduced a 50 per cent excise tax on products with added sugar or other sweeteners.
The sin tax is levied on products, whether in the form of a beverage or a concentrate, powder, extract or any product that may be converted into a beverage.
Against the backdrop of the UAE government’s efforts to reduce the high intake of sugar to prevent obesity and chronic diseases, Gulf News did an investigation to find out how much sugar is added to karak tea here.
Secret ingredients of karak tea
As we scoured a few cafeterias and restaurants selling karak tea, we stumbled upon the fact that each of them has their own secret recipe.
While nobody was willing to share the exact mix of tea powders they use, tea makers said cardamom, cinnamon and ginger are some of the main ingredients that give the rich flavour to the tea when brewed in different proportions and topped with a dab of saffron.
We found that evaporated milk or UHT-processed tetra pack milk are among the most popular milk types used for karaks in the UAE.
While there is no standard amount of sugar that is used in different outlets, our investigation revealed that it is not just sugar and milk that is giving the sweetness to your karak.
At one cafeteria in Al Safa in Dubai, an employee said he uses 12oz of sugar and more than half a litre evaporated milk for making one kettle of tea that gives about 30 cups sized 6.5oz.
“We add a couple of biscuits also to give a special flavour to our karak,” he revealed.
What he showed us was a tiny Lotus Biscoff biscuit. Each caramelised biscuit contains 3g sugar.
The employee also revealed that his friend, who makes tea in another cafeteria popular for its karak, adds glucose biscuits instead.
A glucose biscuit produced by a popular brand in the UAE contains 7.8g sugar.
What else adds to the sweetness?
Mohammad, who makes karak tea for a newly opened restaurant in Ras Al Khor, said he is aware of tea makers in the UAE using different types of biscuits, chocolate eclairs and condensed milk in their karak tea to add sweetness and flavour.
Which karak lover wouldn’t agree with him when he says: “The essence of karak tea is its sweet and strong flavour. That is what makes it addictive.”
In his previous workplace, a popular café chain known for its karak tea, Mohammed was told to use 120g of sugar for five litres of tea.
“Here, I use less sugar, 80g for five litres, as I add condensed milk for enhancing the flavour.”
Hundred gram of condensed milk has 54g of sugar.
Mohammed argues that most karak lovers like to have more sugar in their cuppa. “Especially taxi drivers. They love drinking very sweet tea that gives them more energy.”
Some tea stall employees claimed that they use only sugar and add nothing else for sweetness in karak. But the quantity revealed by some left us stunned.
Like the cafeteria in Al Quoz. The employee there said they add one kilo sugar to 10litre water for brewing the karak tea with 300g of a special mix of tea powder. “Evaporated milk is added separately in the cup,” he said.
When you do the Math, you can see that there is 100g of sugar added for one litre water.
There are outlets that give you sweeter karak in biscuit cups too! The sugar coating inside the lining of the biscuit cup makes the tea even sweeter.
The essence of karak tea is its sweet and strong flavour. That is what makes it addictive.
What a health expert says
High amount of sugar in karak tea is an alarming concern which needs to be given a thought as the nation looks forward to cutting down consumption of sweetened beverages and drinks, said Janani Satchithanantham, dietitian, Aster Hospital, Al Qusais.
“If a tea maker adds 100g sugar in one litre water, the end result in one cup of tea an individual would be consuming would be 20g sugar which is 4tsp,” she explained.
This can go up depending on how many servings the individual is consuming. “Consuming these empty calories can lead to unintended weight gain and lead to other lifestyle concerns,” Satchithanantham cautioned.
Sugar is considered the single worst ingredient in the modern day diet. “It damages the metabolism in the long run. Eating too much added sugar in daily routine will lead to weight gain, obesity, type two diabetes and heart diseases.”
American Heart Association (AHA) recommends the maximum amount of sugar you can eat in a day is not more than six to nine teaspoons for an adult with normal BMI. “Ideally in a cup of tea, half to one teaspoon of sugar can be taken,” Satchithanantham advised.
The nutritional value of a cup of karak tea is 122 kcal, with 8g sugar and 5g fat, said Satchithanantham.
“The calorie count varies anywhere between 70 --133kcal depending on what proportion of milk and sugar is added in the making of karak tea.”
If the sugar content per one cup of tea is two teaspoons of granulated sugar, it amounts to 32kcal, she said.
“If the number of servings is on the higher side, the overall calorie from the sugar also increases. Remember, it is empty calories as it does not add any nutritional value.”
“Extra additives like glucose biscuit will make it [karak tea] more calorie-dense than nutrient-dense. Tea is a refreshing beverage and having such calorie-dense beverage is going to be filling and you would tend to skip the actual meal,” she cautioned.
If you are concerned about the calories going in, then karak tea with high sugar content or with condensed milk will absolutely do no justice to your total intake of calories, she explained.
However, considering the nutritional benefits with not much added sugar, she said karak tea improves the digestive process as it contains cardamom and cinnamon, which have antibacterial properties that prevent digestive problems. Some people also add black pepper that has antagonistic properties, observed Satchithanantham.
So, will you give up karak?
But, will the karak lovers give up their favourite cup because of high sugar? Not likely, vouch Pakistani colleagues and karak lovers Imtiaz Hussain, Ashfaq Nawaz and Mitha Khan.
They work in the Fruits and Vegetables Market in Al Aweer and walk for a couple of kilometres to a stall in Ras Al Khor just to have their favourite Dh1 karak in the evenings.
“They have the perfect mix. I don’t think it is too sweet. We feel refreshed after drinking this karak. That is why we come here to have their karak tea. It gives us energy and enthusiasm,” said Nawaz.
Indian expat Sangeetha. S, another karak lover, said she opts for karak “without sugar” and adds brown sugar according to her taste.
But, most of the karak tea outlets do not sell the ‘without’ version. And reducing the sugar might turn away the customers, feared Ismail, the operations manager of a restaurant chain that sells karak for Dh1.
“We cannot increase the price also. It is the cheapest drink. Everyone likes it because it is tasty and cheap,” he said.
History of tea
Tea originated as a medicinal drink in China in third century. Tea was first introduced to Portuguese priests and merchants in Lebanon during the 16th century. Drinking tea became popular in Britain during the 17th century. The British introduced tea production, as well as tea consumption, to India to compete with the Chinese monopoly on tea. The strong masala tea popular in India arrived in the Gulf countries with the Indian diaspora in the 1960s, during the time oil was discovered in the region.
Tea is as much an Arabic as a European culture. Of the top 30 tea consumer countries, 15 are in the Middle East and North Africa which now accounts for a quarter of global tea drinking.
The world’s centre for tea bag production is Dubai.
Why is karak tea so popular?
Karak is a super-charged sweet, milk tea with strong flavour of spices like cardamom, ginger, cinnamon and saffron.
Many karak joints enhance the flavour by mixing different types of loose tea and adding different proportions of spices and sugar-infusing ingredients.
Karak literally means ‘hard’ or ‘stiff’. 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.
The Gulf version of India’s masala tea became known as karak chai possibly because of the way it is ordered to be made strong.
In this region, it is more popular than the regular black tea, green tea and other herbal tea infusions because of its strong, sugary flavour.
From the humbling Dh1 concoction to costly luxury blends, karak tea is perhaps the most consumed beverage in the UAE.