The se­cret to a good cup of karak tea shall al­ways re­main a se­cret, be­lieves Arva Ahmed.

Friday - - Contents - Arva Ahmed of­fers guided tours re­veal­ing Dubai’s culi­nary hide­outs (fry­ing­panad­ven­

Old Dubai runs on blood, sweat, tears and karak. Karak, a diminu­tive word for the In­dian-born karak chai or chai karak, is that democratis­ing drink that fu­els the city: the jew­ellers and tai­lors of Meena Bazaar, work­ers on con­struc­tion sites, fish­mon­gers in Al Ras, hot-blooded race-car youth in Jumeirah and Satwa and mid­dle-class In­dian fam­i­lies seated al fresco in Mankhool. Most cups of the sweet milky bev­er­age are brewed by free-stand­ing Ker­alite cafe­te­rias and slurped road-side or in air-con­di­tioned cars that roll up for drive-through ser­vice. Chai cafe­te­rias may pour the drink for pocket change, of­ten one or two dirhams, but what they lose on mar­gins they make up for in vol­ume.

While many of the cafe­te­rias are tightlipped about their books of busi­ness, a few will dis­close that they sell hun­dreds of cups of chai ev­ery day. The more pop­u­lar stalls boost vol­umes in thou­sands, but for those cus­tomers thirsty for ac­cu­racy, these statis­tics need to be fil­tered through a fine sieve of scep­ti­cism.

The more ac­com­mo­dat­ing cafe­te­rias might of­fer advice if you feign dis­tress over be­ing in­ca­pable of brew­ing chai as per­fect as theirs. Some re­veal that they brew a mix of dif­fer­ent black tea leaves – two or more of the usual sus­pects: Lip­ton, Brooke Bond, Leone or Alokozay – in sweet­ened wa­ter even be­fore their first sleepy pa­tron stum­bles in through the door. The in­fu­sion is stored in gi­ant cop­per or steel ket­tles over burn­ers that have earned the black­ened crust of life­time ser­vice.

Ja­marik Cafe­te­ria, which has been pour­ing chai since 1968, swears by a Rus­sian samovar to steep their qual­ity cup. Some add cardamom by de­fault, while oth­ers add the pods for an ad­di­tional 50 fils or a dirham that is well worth the spiced aroma.

But there is so much more than a cafe­te­ria will ever dis­close about at­tain­ing an im­mac­u­late cup of chai. The right quan­tity of tea leaves should be plunged in at the right stage of boil­ing and steeped for the right du­ra­tion be­fore adding in the right quan­tity of milk that com­ple­ments, rather than over­pow­ers the brew. Suc­cess comes to those cafe­te­rias who re­spect ra­tios, aro­mas and in­tu­ition.

Many cafe­te­rias in Meena Bazaar of­fer the orig­i­nal chai as pre­pared in In­dia, also called ‘fresh milk chai,’ where reg­u­lar milk is boiled along with wa­ter, sugar, tea leaves and spices for a richer, har­mo­nious in­fu­sion. But the ma­jor­ity of cafe­te­rias around the city rely on the time­sav­ing tech­nique of stream­ing in Rain­bow or Car­na­tion evap­o­rated milk af­ter the black tea has been boiled, strained and ready to pour.

In the Gulf, chai is of­ten re­ferred to as ‘karak.’ Iron­i­cally, if you were to ap­proach a per­son in In­dia to in­quire af­ter the best ‘karak’, you would be poured noth­ing but a blank, clue­less ex­pres­sion: Karak 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. It is only plau­si­ble that when the Arabs in the Gulf over­heard the In­dian ex­pa­tri­ate com­mu­nity or­der­ing their cups of karak chai or ‘strong tea’, they as­sumed that the name of this heav­ily sug­ared milk in­fu­sion was ‘karak’.

The sweet­ness in a street-side cup of karak chai is noth­ing short of cav­ity-in­duc­ing. One ket­tle han­dler whis­pered he adds at least one heaped spoon­ful of sugar per chai – though I strongly sus­pect his spoon is a la­dle. The sugar is added in at the nascent stage of boil­ing the wa­ter. Should you com­mit the unimag­in­able faux pas of re­quest­ing a low-sugar or sugar-free chai, cafe­te­rias will pun­ish your in­so­lent de­vi­a­tion with an in­sipid cup of wa­tery milk and a limp tea bag.

Karak chai has seeped its way into lo­cal food cul­ture and is a sta­ple drink in Emi­rati homes and restau­rants. Mon­eyed din­ers in Down­town, City Walk and Box Park are sip­ping dainty cups of karak that de­liver an ap­pro­pri­ate jolt, less be­cause of their po­tency and more be­cause of their price tag, which can be any­where from Dh10 to a stag­ger­ing Dh25 a cup. The drink has spilled past its tra­di­tional Sty­ro­foam con­struct to in­spire ice cream flavours, cakes and cronut fill­ings. It is en­cour­ag­ing to see this Old Dubai drink be­ing savoured across the city, though one can only wish for it to be poured at a price that doesn’t make wal­lets run dry.

The SWEET­NESS in a street-side cup of karak chai is cav­ity-in­duc­ing. One ket­tle han­dler WHIS­PERED he adds at least one heaped SPOON­FUL of sugar per chai, though I sus­pect his spoon is a la­dle.

There is so much more than a cafe­te­ria will ever dis­close about at­tain­ing an im­mac­u­late cup of chai

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