Chai Karak: The Popular Drink That’s Rapidly Spreading in the Gulf

Head to any Chai Karak joint in the early hours of the morning or late at night and you will find endless rows of cars lining up for what seems to be just a small cup of inexpensive tea. The creamy, fragrant Chai Karak stands strong as one of the drinks that is gaining popularity in the Khaleeji region. Currently one of the most popular hot drinks in the UAE and Qatar, its humble beginnings actually lie in the South Asian countries of India and Pakistan.

Known as ‘kadak chai’ or ‘masala chai’, which roughly translates to strong tea, versions of chai karak are prepared in South Asian homes daily. A blend of black tea, milk, sugar and cardamom, it is prepared by boiling this combination together on a low flame. Although no one really knows how ‘kadak chai’ became Chai Karak, the most likely idea is that South Asian workers in the region brought with them their love of milky tea when they left their homes.

Chai Karak

In the Indian subcontinent, the tea culture can be traced back to colonial times and now tea is vital in every household pantry. The tea of the subcontinent has not completely translated to become chai karak however. Unlike traditional South Asian ‘masala chai’, chai karak uses just one spice, while ‘masala chai’ can often include a variety of spices like ginger, peppercorn or cloves.

The regionally popular Chai Karak instead developed into a drink that reflects local tastes by combining a spice common to both cultures; cardamom, as well as a mutual love for the strong flavor of black tea. In the UAE and Qatar, numerous small cafeterias serve thousands of cups of this comfort drink daily, at the beep of a car horn, to young and old, both local and expats.

Whether it joins them on a simple stroll with a loved one or while driving around and catching up with friends, this simple drink has become an integral part of local culture. A truly addictive flavor, it has even found its way into cupcakes and ice cream!

Want to attempt recreating this drink at home? Try this simple recipe below:

  1. Combine a teaspoon of loose black tea and crushed cardamom with a cup of boiling water and boil for a couple of minutes.
  2. Remove from the heat; add milk till the tea becomes a creamy brown colour and sugar to your taste.*
  3. Place back on the heat and boil for a further two minutes.
  4. Serve hot!

 *Note: Some recipes use sweet condensed milk instead of regular milk and sugar to get an even richer taste. To intensify flavor, you can add a few saffron threads, ginger or any other of your favorite spices.

– Deepti Chadalavada

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  1. jim worldcitizen

    Karaq tea is available throughout Qatar and also in Emirates. There are two special memories I have about Karaq tea. There is a place in Doha which is actually an old van run by some Indian guys which make Karaq tea. Later at night I would go there with my local friends in their car, and many other fancy cars with fancy young local guys would also been seen congregating there. All of them sipping tea and, looking at the other guys in the other cars. I would smile and flirt at the cute and hunky guys in the cars across from our car and they would flash their car lights off and on, and if they were brave would come past our car with a big smile on their face! My heart jumped a few beats each time!

    Another time when Karaq was ever present was when my friends would call me for smoking sheesha ( bubbly pipe) late at night in a very modest and club where there would be all guys – we would drink karaq (many glasses!) and smoke sheesha ( my favourite was “zaghloul, and sometimes “Bahraini” ) until late at night!
    These kinds of places where more older guys would meet would have music by Umm Kalthoum or Abdel Halim-Hafez ( I like both of these singers too!). The places where my “shabub” friends would go usually had the TV on with some sports programme which no one was watching.

    I miss those times! I try to replicate making karaq at home but I can never make it taste exactly like it did in the Gulf.

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