Tea lovers
Harvinder Singh Mangat and Ashwaini Sharma enjoy a cup of refreshing tea. Image Credit: Karishma Nandkeolyar/Gulf News

There is a reason why the UAE is peppered with the ubiquitous chai shop - some are more hole-in-the-wall than others, but what they lack in compatible design they make up for in experience. Steaming cups of tea with a mix of  milk and water that has been boiled to perfection and flavoured with caffeine-rich tea leaves. (Sugar is added to taste.) This liquor is a blanket of comfort and a gentle nudge into wakefulness.

This type of tea is often called karak, although there are many variations – with ginger or other additional spices – which can also result in a slightly tweaked name. [Ask for ginger or cinnamon tea, for instance, if you’d like to try a specific blend.]

Chai time
Tea & Chat is open 23 hours in a day.

The drink’s roots are in India, where instead of ‘a splash of milk’ or a squeeze of lime as the decoction was originally drunk by the British who introduced it to the country, the water is boiled along with milk until it thickens into a syrupy concoction.

Today this type of tea is drunk in tiny stalls, pop-up and shops often called chai addas.

As a trading hub, the UAE was destined to offer both versions of the drink, and it has. The colloquially called kadak – which means strong – has also revamped its name; here, we call it karak. And with it, it has re-jigged some of its essential ingredients, fresh milk often for taste and consistency is replaced by its evaporated cousin. “In 7,400 tea shops that sell karak, [the tea is] made with Rainbow [evaporated milk],” says Sumeet Mathur, Managing Director, FrieslandCampina Middle East

Chai time
The tea is boiled over a long time to ensure the flavour is perfect.

So how does the thick evaporated milk come to be? “Evaporating 40 per cent of water content from fresh milk and retaining its good fat and protein,” adds Mathur.

In the end know there are 2 glasses of fresh milk in each 170g tin.

Engaging the senses

You’ll often be able to spot a chai shop meters away, because it’s generally a-buzz with conversation and the sound of sloshing as ribbons of the stuff are poured from up top. [These also make for good Instagram photos.]

Indian Shanawaz Sayed, who hails from Mumbai and was quickly downing a late lunch in a café nearby, called Tea & Chat, says he loves the variety available in the store. “Basically the tea, the ambience, besides that the service is also good here,” says. This talk of ‘ambience’, or environment, comes up often when talking to tea drinkers – for the comfort and company that comes with the tea is often half the fun.

Chai time
Try the briyani tea on a cool evening - it's got ginger and honey...and mint.

Mohammed Shafeeq and his wife, Jaseene Shafeeq, were out with their son, Izaan, when they decided to stop for a cup of tea at one such café in Karama, called My Tea, earlier this month. This couple – each of whom drink about four-five cups of tea in a day, call the fresh milk offering here special. It also offers a little walk – and conversation with the local journos.

There are different types of teas that soothe each palate, and in the case of the Dubai market a few new names propped up. “I like Biryani chai - it’s kind of herbal tea, it’s with ginger and mint and all that. Currently the weather is very cold, so it works very well,” said Sayed.

‘Karak’ economics

Tea & Chat which is surrounded by other chai stores is special, say its vendors. For one thing, it’s open 23 hours in a day. For another, at any point in the day you’ll find it at least half full with avid tea-and-sandwich samplers. Sajina, the owner of this store – where the karak is boiled for about 45-minutes before it’s considered ready for sipping – says foot traffic is in the thousands each day, and the secret to keeping the tea tasting as good as it does – a healthy pour of Rainbow. “Thickness is very good for the tea,” she explains.

Chai time
Mohammed Shafeeq and his wife, Jaseene Shafeeq, were out with their son, Izaan

Then there is the crowded sit-out store next door, where sits Varun Bhola, from India’s Chandigarh. He quickly lists his reasons for stopping by. “It’s different taste, it’s economical, place give you better environment. Three different kind of tea that I like here - zafran, ginger and biryani,” he says.

And that’s the other thing about karak chai – it’s a cheap pick-me-up. Low on energy? Woken up on the wrong side of the bed? Just generally having a bad day? Stop by for a small cup – for these are usually measured out in thimble-full servings – and by the end of the warm drink, you are sure to find comfort - and the will to take the world on.

Fans come from far away

While a bad cup of tea can achieve the opposite effect, most places in the UAE boasts professional tea makers. Sitting far away in a Karama shop for instance, we find two gents waxing lyrical about a store far, far away – The Pravin Bhai Naashtawala Restaurant in Gold Souq, which apparently offers the tastiest drink this side of town. “We are hard-core tea lovers,” says Harvinder Singh Mangat as Ashwaini Sharma nods.

Chai time
At Filli Cafe a cup of chai comes in a tall glass. Try the saffron tea for a variation.

So what makes a good cup of tea? Some would argue patience; it’s a promise of good taste and that can take some time. “A kadak chai should be a good CTC tea, full bodied and which has a briskness – in common terms bite, that’s kadak. It should wake you up well in the morning and [help you] feel fresh after a hard day’s work,” explains Debabrata Mitra, Managing Director, Contemporary Brokers.

What exactly is CTC tea?
CTC tea is made through a process where leaves are passed through a series of cylindrical rollers. The leaves are crushed, torn and curled into small, hard pellets full of flavor.

So stop by for a small cup of kadak and be refreshed the next time to pass a store buzzing with conversation and emitting the smell of hot, flavourful chai.