James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Searching for Solace in a Cup of Chai, From Mumbai to Dubai

Searching for Solace in a Cup of Chai, From Mumbai to Dubai

Chai in Dubai

When we moved to Dubai last September, though summer was on its way out, the afternoons were still oppressive. During the days of house- and furniture-hunting that followed, irrespective of the heat, come evening I would crave my fix of chai. I felt an overpowering need to curl my fingers around a glass of comfort, to make this new city and life a bit more familiar.

We moved to Dubai from Mumbai, a metropolis that doesn’t sleep. Much of the credit to keep it going round the clock can be attributed to the thousands of glasses of chai consumed on street corners, at local train stations, and from vendors roaming around seaside promenades and other prominent public spaces, with their gleaming aluminum kettles. My favorite haunt was a makeshift stall outside my daughter’s school. The man who made the chai knew exactly how I liked my brew, strong with earthy flavors of freshly ground ginger and cardamom, and less sugar. As our eyes made contact and I mouthed ‘chai’, he would get to work, as I rushed off to drop my daughter to the gate. He always charged a few extra rupees for this customization, but it was a price I was happy to pay.

A large influx of workers from the Indian subcontinent to Dubai, particularly from the state of Kerala, have brought with them their culture of drinking cooked tea. Now free-standing Keralite restaurants located across the city, serve karak chai. A mixture of black tea leaves, cardamom, milk, and sugar are boiled just to the right degree to make a cup of karak. In the absence of fresh milk, Rainbow milk or condensed milk is used. The tea is so popular that Emiratis drive by and grab a cup on their way to work, or after. Picking up on the viable business opportunity, entrepreneurs have opened tea cafes similar to franchise coffee shops around the world.

While I haven’t found my perfect cup yet, I do have a place I frequent. Coincidentally, it also happens to be a school, but this time, it’s my driving school. On many days, I scramble to the restaurant across the road to grab a cup of chai barely a few minutes before my class. A short young boy in his early 20s always takes my order, giving me a half-smile. The men around the restaurant, mostly taxi drivers and construction workers, throw me curious glances, wondering what a woman is doing in their midst. The company or the surroundings were never a point of contention: it was solace I craved in my glass of chai in Mumbai, as I now do in Dubai. The only change is that the chai is sickly sweet, and the green-tinged glasses have been substituted with Styrofoam cups.

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