How karak chai became synonymous with tea culture in UAE

In a country where coffee once predominantly reigned, karak chai has upended the game and become synonymous with UAE culture. But what makes it so special, and is it just all things good?
A cup of steaming sweet karak chai is enough to excite any resident in the uae. Image: koukh al shay
A cup of steaming sweet karak chai is enough to excite any resident in the UAE. Image: Koukh Al Shay (one of the most popular cafeterias for karak).

The UAE isn’t the place it once was. The country’s transformation from a humble port for fishing and trading to a futuristic metropolis has been remarkable to say the least. The one constant through it all, or at least since the early 1960s, has been a steaming styrofoam glass of karak chai. 

Even as cafe culture continues to evolve across the Emirates, karak has remained etched in the Gulf, even carving out a niche of its own. For most, karak is not just about a hot cup of strong, sweet tea. It’s an emotion, and not one to be taken lightly. 

The same is evident in the long lines of honking cars outside nondescript hole-in-the wall cafeterias, all the way up to crowded fancy cafes nestled in tall skyscrapers. Everyone can’t get enough of karak, rendering it an almost necessity like quality. 

While most people attribute the origin and love for tea to the Chinese and later the British, the beverage finds just as much favour across Arabic countries. Of the top 30 tea consumer countries, 15 are in the Middle East and North Africa, accounting for a quarter of global tea consumption. The world’s centre for tea bag production is in Dubai, enough said. 

Karak, derived from the Indian word ‘kadak’, simply refers to a strong brewed cup of tea. It arrived in the UAE with the Indian diaspora in the 1960s, during the time oil was discovered in the region. The local population quickly took to this hot, creamy drink from the outset, adapting it as their own. 

Traditionally served in styrofoam cups in nondescript cafeterias across uae, karak chai is an essential part of the country's culture. Image: whatson
Traditionally served in styrofoam cups in nondescript cafeterias across UAE, karak chai is an essential part of the country’s culture. Image: Whatson.

Soon enough, the culture evolved as roadside cafes began to spring up, making the drink a daily ritual. Be it a catch-up session for friends, respite from a winter night-out, or lorry drivers for whom a cup of karak is a 4am pick-me-up, the drink has become deeply ingrained in UAE culture.

And it sells like hotcakes too. Prices range from Dh1 to a whopping Dh25 as you move to the swankier parts of town. Given the commercial and consumer viability, the demand remains in hundreds and thousands per day. Accompanied by a simple egg sandwich or shortbread for the elite, there’s no denying the charm of the simple yet refreshingly sweet drink. 

So what goes into a perfect cup of karak chai? It’s primarily about the caramel colour, the creamy mouthfeel, and an almost toffee like flavour. Simply put, it’s a blend of tea powder, spices like cardamom, cinnamon and ginger, and topped with a dab of saffron. The addition of saffron to the preparation also gives it the special status of a zaffran karak chai, but more on that later. 

On the back of this much-loved part of UAE culture, several cafeterias and chains have been established across the country. Prominent outlets on every karak lover’s radar include Project Chaiwala, Pappa Roti, Arabian Tea House, Uncle Tea, Real Karak Cafe, Koukh Al Shay, and of course, FiLLi tea. 

From an unassuming cafeteria in mamzar from 1991, the brand exploded in the hands of rafih filli and quickly became a household name for karak lovers. Image: filli
From an unassuming cafeteria in Mamzar, 1991, the brand exploded in the hands of Rafih FiLLi and quickly became a household name for karak lovers. Image: FiLLi.

Arguably the most popular of the lot and credited for creating the signature ‘FiLLi tea’, the brand exploded on the scene and garnered a lot of love simply through word-of-mouth. Brainchild of Teapreneur Rafih FiLLi, the chain has locations sprawled across the emirates in spots that maximise visibility and set the tone for a perfect evening hang. 

Espousing their motto of ‘Tea n’ Talk’, the mahogany and orange interiors are familiar to karak lovers across the ages. While their karak is definitely one of the signature items on the menu, it’s the ‘Zafran’ karak chai that keeps people coming back for more. Rafih unlocked the secret to success with the signature tea blend, with saffron and cardamom being the keynotes. The resultant concoction when brewed right offers an extra dash of sweetness and a soothing effect to the tea, evidently appreciated by the masses. 

The no-fuss quality of a karak makes it popular for more than one reason. As hordes of customers gather outside cafeterias on a daily, it’s imperative that the short-staffed cafe delivers, and quickly at that. Some places have even taken to reinvention of the classic drink to keep up with the highly competitive food and drinks industry. So newer cafes also sport the flavors of karak in nontraditional forms such as ice-cream and French Toast, although it’s still the chai that holds maximum audience.

It's not unusual to find a filli crowded with karak lovers, dotted across the landscape of uae. It's the perfect setting for anyone looking for a relaxed hang. Image: filli cafe
It’s not unusual to find a FiLLi crowded with karak lovers, dotted across the landscape of UAE. It’s the perfect setting for anyone looking for a relaxed hang. Image: FiLLi Cafe.

However, is there more to the heavily-sugared milk infusion than meets the eye? Can things really be as sweet as a steaming cup of karak, with no catch in sight? 

According to a report by Gulf News, not so much. Against the backdrop of the UAE government’s efforts to reduce the high intake of sugar to prevent obesity and chronic diseases, there have been several taxes put in place. 

The sin tax is essentially a 50 per cent excise tax on products with added sugar or other sweeteners. It’s generally 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. However, with karak chai not classifying as a retail product, it’s managed to evade the throes of the government, and continues to attract newer and loyal customers alike. 

The report suggests an alarming use of sugar and other additional sweeteners at most popular karak chai outlets. Findings revealed evaporated milk or UHT-processed tetra pack milk as the most popular milk types used for karaks in the UAE.

Some cafeterias go as far as adding 340g of sugar and more than half a litre of evaporated milk for brewing just one kettle of tea. And that’s not taking into account the cafeterias that add their own special touch of sweetness to the drink. From caramelised Lotus biscuits (3-5g sugar per biscuit), to glucose biscuits (28-70g per biscuit), and even serving karak in special biscuit cups, there’s no dearth of sweet on sweet for ardent fans. 

In spite of karak traditionally being a sweet tea, cafeterias have not hesitated from going the extra mile to make the beverage even sweeter. Be it in the form of condensed milk or crumbled biscuits, the final concoction has gotten alarmingly sweet. Image: project chaiwala
In spite of karak traditionally being a sweet tea, cafeterias have not hesitated from going the extra mile to make the beverage even sweeter. Be it in the form of condensed milk or crumbled biscuits, the final concoction has gotten alarmingly sweet. Image: Project Chaiwala.

With an average cup of karak chai being 122 kcal, with 8g sugar and 5g fat, it’s certainly a calorie and not nutrient dense affair. 

But all the statistics cease to matter in the face of a well-brewed cup of karak. Even as contemporary chains like Project Chaiwala look to offer vegan and premium quality options, there’s no talk of healthier avenues anywhere in sight. 

Any karak lover across the country will only sing praises of the beverage, and the energy that surges through them post a cup of it. What most people continue to ignore is the fact that what’s energy today, could potentially be obesity, diabetes, or even cardiac complications tomorrow.

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