Spiced, sweet, creamy and warm, and no, this isn’t referring to those seasonal lattes one can find at international coffee chains – it’s about the ever-so popular drink, Karak Chai. A tea loved by many across the UAE, it’s the kind of drink you can easily find at your local cafeteria, roadside cafes, or even in the MICHELIN Guide restaurant selection in the Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
The love for Karak Chai is deep-seated in both the expat and local communities, becoming an important part in their daily rituals. It gained traction in the country since being introduced in the 1960s alongside the Indian diaspora, when the UAE’s big oil boom began. While its sweet and spiced flavour composition are common to Southeast Asia, this favourite among Emiratis and expats alike has been adopted as their own and has been integrated it within their budding culture.
This article introduces the famous tea to MICHELIN Guide readers and gives a little insight on the significance the beverage has had on Dubai-raised chef Neha Mishra’s childhood and upbringing.
What is Karak Chai Exactly?
Let’s start by dissecting its meaning: ‘karak’ in Hindi means ‘strong’ and ‘chai’ means tea. In essence, this ‘strong tea’ is the pick-me-up sought after by many who wake early in the morning or need a boost in the afternoon following a hearty meal. Its popularity grew quickly in the UAE, and its surrounding Gulf countries in the region, because of its sweet, creamy, and spiced flavours, almost reminiscent of many Arabic desserts.
The chai is made by boiling milk, sugar, black tea leaves and spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and saffron in a pot. Once all the flavours have been infused, the spices are strained from the liquid and served hot; however, like many home recipes, every family prepares it in their own way. Some may add a different type of milk, or even play around with the spices, but one thing remains: the comfort one gets after one cup. In the colder months, this popular drink is consumed almost as much as water. Its warm, almost dessert-like qualities make it the perfect drink to enjoy but in modesty of course, due its caffeinated properties.
Drink it Like a Local
For many who grew up in the UAE or have lived a good part of their life in the region, karak chai has been an essential beverage in their upbringing and lifestyle. It has found its home in the lives of many UAE residents, especially for chef Neha Mishra, chef-owner of Bib Gourmand restaurant, Kinoya.
“Growing up in Dubai, and being an Indian, chai / karak chai is instilled in our culture and almost a part of our DNA,” she says, “it’s the first thing you are offered when you go to someone house, it’s also enjoyed after a meal - much like coffee is in the West.”
Karak chai is usually the beverage of choice in these sorts of gatherings and has a certain nostalgia tied to it, especially in throughout chef Neha’s upbringing.
“It’s just part of our culture. Like coffee is to Italians I suppose. The spices, the milky texture, the aroma - that’s part of my culture as well and growing up in Dubai these shared commonalities between our cultures helped us bond for someone like me, a third culture kid.”
In the UAE in particular, “tea in general has always been very much a part of Emirati culture. I also think it’s’ a teetotal culture, there’s always more emphasis on drinks that people can socialize around,” chef Neha explains.
In many communities across the region, being hospitable goes hand in hand with their culture and this is often expressed through food and beverages. Families and friends get together over a warm coffee or tea for a catchup session, which is all too familiar for her. Karak chai reminds her of “home, visiting friends, family and winters,” which is the case for expats and locals alike.
The popular tea can be enjoyed across the country, from humble gas stations on the highway to fine dining restaurants that have found different ways to re-imagine it. At Bib Gourmand restaurant, Aamara, one can experience the tea’s iconic flavours in the closing portion of their lunch menu in the form of a chocolate bon bon filled with karak chai they aptly named, ‘karak chai bon bon.'
While chef Neha’s menu in Kinoya is focused on minimalist Japanese cuisine and does not really include the tea’s flavour profile, she enjoys the drink on her days off. “Every winter I go to the textile souq, followed by the spice souq,” chef Neha recalls, “it’s old Dubai and reminds me of outings with my father. There’s quite literally a hole in the wall that sells karak chai. It’s the first thing I get when I’m there.”
The karak chai phenomena in the UAE has yet to slow down. It continues to grow its fanbase that spans across cultures and nationalities as it maintains its popularity in the country’s ever evolving culture.
Illustration image // Veliavik/iStock
Emirati man pouring karak image // heinstirred/iStock