Tea time, anyone? Exploring the GCC’s karak chai craze

Chai karak is a firm favorite with many citizens and expats living in the GCC, from Dubai to Doha, but where did this karak craze come from?

Monica Kapila
Monica Kapila - Special to Al Arabiya English
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As a child, I’d grimace at the thought of drinking masala tea as I found the slightly thick, mildly spicy, over sweet drink unpalatable and cloying.

But look at me now! When I’m really tired or need an afternoon pick me up, the first thing I do is pound some cardamoms, drop them on top of my tea bag in a mug then pour over boiling water and add some milk. There is nothing more comforting or refreshing.

That’s my simple version of masala tea, or chai karak, and I’m not the only one who’s developed a taste for a version of the original karak chai. It’s a firm favorite with many citizens and expats living in the GCC, from Dubai to Doha, but where did this karak craze come from?

All the tea drunk by the British till the1870s or so came from China and the word chai itself comes from the Mandarin word cha. But it was proving hugely expensive to import this luxury commodity as China didn’t want anything tradable in return from Britain. So, it was vital to find a cheaper source of tea. The British then experimented with Assamese tea plants, with resounding success. Assam is still a major tea producer in India.

Initially, the British actually gave away tea in India as it was so addictive and it provided a much needed shot of caffeine in a palatable form for those working on the railways. Indian herbs fused with the English custom of taking tea with milk eventually led to the birth of Kadak, Karak, or seriously strong or masala tea! The word karak or kadak means hard in Hindi and I’ve also heard it used to describe the searing heat of the midday sun, “karak dhoop.”

Today, India may be the largest consumer and exporter of tea in the world but it looks like the GCC has definitely caught the karak chai bug! It’s route into the Gulf was via the Asian diaspora who brought it with them when they settled here and although there are regional adaptations and customizations, it’s could be described as a strongly brewed cup, mug, glass or clay pot of herb infused, milky, sweet Indian tea.

Masala tea, masala chai, karak chai, or chai karak, they’re all pretty much made with a variety of herbs, spices, milk and black tea, all boiled up into a strong potent, slightly heavy hot drink! You need a saucepan to make this tea, a kettle - the hot water dispensed from a filter just won’t do it! Ideally you’d grind your cloves or cardamoms fresh, or maybe you’re lucky enough to have your granny’s secret blend of perfectly powdered tea masala that you just pop into your boiling milk? There are plenty of masala chai tea bags available on the high street now if you want to try and conveniently taste your own.

In the early days, you’d have to drive down to Bur Dubai or the Indian areas of town, find a basic cafeteria and honk your horn to have your karak chai delivered to you by a chai wallah. You’d receive your chai in a disposable cup and expect to pay around a dirham (27 cents) or so. You can still see plenty of people drinking their morning or afternoon tea like this, but now we have much more up market karak chai places like Karak House in Downtown Dubai that sits next to Californian style cafes and karak here costs nearer AED 12.00 ($3) if you’re having your tea there or AED 8.00 ($2) if you’re taking it away. They also have plans to open a second branch by the end of 2016.

Karak House opened in 2015 and it’s a smart combination of Indian and Emirati flavors. Wake up and smell the karak chai it says on its menu! Chappati and karak in Doha has taken its particular blend of karak to Brompton road in Knightsbridge so karak chai has taken a full circle back to Britain! Qatari karak is a hugely popular drink and some even say it’s almost a national drink in Qatar. Apparently, Qatari karak uses condensed milk and fewer spices than its original Indian counterpart, making the tea creamier and sweeter in taste. However you take your tea, karak chai is big in the Middle East.

But remember, traditional Indian chai wallahs will boil black tea leaves with water and milk, add fresh ground ginger, pounded cardamom cloves and maybe some fennel or cloves, sweeten with copious amounts of sugar, then strain into a sturdy tea glass or earthen ware pot. A large saucepan, proper tea strainer and strategic spot on the pavement for the chai stall are essential.

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