Through Chai, Searching For A Truer Version Of Dubai

Words and photos by Vidya Balachander

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There’s a cliché about cities that I have come to dislike, one which always gets used when trying to describe a city made up of different groups of people in close proximity to each other: cheek by jowl. I believe it’s original usage is meant to conjure up the image of people so pressed together that their cheeks brush up against the jaws of their neighbour. However, I have started to see the image another way ─ a cheek and jowl on the same person, or animal. It is almost a food image: a jowl, lean from repetitious work, and the cheek fat and plump from the jaw’s labour. The phrase ‘cheek by jowl’ usually means to separate the two from each other, but in this image, the jowl and cheek are part of one interconnected process ─ one does not exist without the other.

In Owen Hatherley’s excellent new book Red Metropolis, which looks at the history, successes, failures, and possible futures of municipal socialism in London, Hatherley quotes the geographer Doreeen Massey:

the regretful caveat’ about ‘exuberant, champagne-swilling’ London—that ‘there is “still” poverty there’—missed the fact that London’s ‘success and the poverty are intimately related’….it is not just that the poor in London have to live (“paradoxically”) cheek by jowl with the rich, it is also that their very co-presence makes their lives much harder.

As soon as I read this, I silently vowed never to let ‘cheek by jowl’ slip so easily from me again. Hatherley’s introduction sent me off on reading more by Massey, whose great contribution to her field was the concept of ‘power geometry’, a way of explaining how, (despite its universal effects) we all experience globalisation in ways which are not simply homogenous. In her essay A Global Sense of Place, she writes:

Different social groups have distinct relationships to this anyway differentiated mobility: some people are more in charge of it than others; some initiate flows and movement, others don’t; some are more on the receiving-end of it than others; some are effectively imprisoned by it.

Which brings us to chai, Dubai, and today’s newsletter by Vidya Balachander. Like Massey’s peek into the stories of Kilburn High Road, you cannot think about the queue at a chai shop in Dubai “without bringing into play half the world”. The existence of South Asian chai in Dubai is a product of globalisation, yet is has produced something completely unique, a culinary vernacular that is still defined by a sense of place. Although it is drunk by every social, racial and migrant class in the city, is it not experienced equally.

Balachander’s writing asks us not to see chai as the great equaliser, but to take in the full complexity of this scene and the multiple identities of Dubai and those who inhabit it, without the binaries of “success” and “struggle”. Rather, in Massey’s words, we should ask who is more in charge, who can initiate movement, who is more on the receiving end, and who, if anyone in this story, is effectively imprisoned?

Through Chai, Searching For A Truer Version Of Dubai, by Vidya Balachander

As far as cities go, Dubai could be compared to a pair of Louboutins: vertiginous, expensive and not particularly suitable for walking. One year ago, when I first slipped into this city, I felt elevated yet somehow unsteady on my feet. It was as if I was treading on rarefied air rather than solid ground. 

I soon learned that living in Dubai means being constantly spoiled for choice. On Deliveroo, I can order sushi at five different price points, and even a middling restaurant is likely to send it with a bag of ice to keep the fish cold. The neighbourhood South-Indian restaurant across the road delivers a single cup of filter coffee to my doorstep. I would discover that for the city’s well-heeled, brunches are a serious pursuit. These paeans to debaucherous excess allow one to believe that just about everything is within reach. In no other city could one imagine a ‘brunch’ beginning on a Thursday evening, and extending until the wee hours of Friday morning. In Dubai, fuelled by the labour of the millions of immigrants who form the backbone of its hospitality industry, eating and drinking lavishly is often a way of life. 

Although I was initially dazzled by this abundance, it didn’t take me long to want to look beyond the glittery facade of the city. As a journalist both by habit and profession, I found it difficult to relate to Dubai from the detached vantage point of the expatriate. As much as I enjoyed the comforts of my privileged life, the fancy dinners and weekend brunches didn’t offer me a connection to its moving parts — the people that keep the city running. I needed an intimate map to Dubai, one plotted through keen exploration and bookmarked with personal experience. That’s how I embarked on a year long affair with karak chai

Karak chai, or just karak for short, is easily Dubai’s most beloved brew. The clues to its popularity are contained in its very name: karak, in the context of chai means strong in Hindi or Urdu. The sharpness of its syllables leave no room for mellowness — when you drink karak, you first register its tannic hit, and are then jolted by its undercurrent of spice and warmth. Although its origins are unclear, the fact that it is brewed like it would be in India or Pakistan — by boiling tea leaves, milk and sugar for a long time — means that karak probably arrived in Dubai along with the South Asian migrants who together make up nearly 40% of the country’s population. Over the last few decades, karak has been absorbed into local culture. Nearly every restaurant, no matter how upmarket, is likely to feature karak on its menu. Several homegrown chai chains have sprung up in recent years, serving hipster versions of the original, such as caramel karak served in mason jars, or vegan chai made with oat or almond milk. 

Koukh al-Shay welcomes a steady stream of customers who visit for the excellent karak. Even though there are several cafeterias located side-by-side in this locality, all of them have their loyal clients.

While chai is typically prepared with fresh milk, as is abundantly available in the Indian subcontinent, karak chai is often made with evaporated milk. This local adaptation, which was a means to overcome the scarcity of fresh ingredients has become a signature flavour. It is so deeply entrenched that in Dubai and throughout the Middle East, Rainbow, a European brand of dairy products, is synonymous with evaporated milk. ‘Rainbow karak’, as it is called to distinguish it from the relatively less common ‘fresh milk karak’, has a richer, creamier mouthfeel, that comes from the sweetened condensed milk. With the addition of spices such as crushed ginger, cardamom and saffron, or even without them, karak is potent enough to offer pause. It is an unfussy pick-me-up that doesn’t demand the ceremony of a sit-down meal or the pleasure of company. Given that it is as popular with the privileged as it is with those less so, it is tempting to view karak as a drawbridge over Dubai’s deep and seemingly intractable inequalities. But just as the city is more than its binaries, the draw of karak is not as simplistic as it seems. 

“Never drink chai in a restaurant.” That was the first, rather cryptic clue that Kulveer Singh offered me when I mentioned that I wanted to explore Dubai’s food beyond its many Michelin-star restaurants. Having worked as a driver in Dubai for over a decade, Kulveer’s knowledge of the city is as intimate as it is expansive. During the several years he spent as a taxi driver, his days were spent cruising the backstreets of Dubai in search of potential customers. To deal with the punishing demands of 12 hour-long shifts, often in the wee hours, and to keep boredom at bay during slumps in his workdays, he drank a lot of karak. That’s how Kulveer knows with such certainty that the best chai in Dubai is not to be found at upmarket restaurants. Instead, it is hidden away in chai shops and cafeterias, nondescript establishments that have elevated the somewhat pedestrian process of brewing chai into a veritable art form. 

Although it does steady business through the day, Jabal Al Noor comes alive in the evenings, customers of all stripes drop by for a glass of karak and something hearty to go with it. Jabal Al Noor’s shawarma sandwiches are particularly famous.

In Al Quoz, a dusty neighbourhood clad with industrial warehouses and barracks-style accommodation for the city’s many migrant labourers, the line outside Al Masa cafeteria is a long one. Depending on the day and the time, the queue might include taxi drivers at the beginning of their shifts, fortifying their mornings with a cup of fresh milk chai or construction workers winding down with sweet karak. We ask for zaffrani chai, a musky brew served in small, Styrofoam cups, with a generous dusting of powdered saffron on top. Our chais cost us two dirhams each (approximately 40 pence), and like everyone else, we drink it in the privacy of our vehicle. 

I soon learn that chai should rarely cost more than one dirham. “You should pay two dirhams only for fresh milk chai,” Kulveer tells me. Through all the one-dirham chais I drink over the months — interspersed with the occasional two-dirham treat — I learn to measure my privilege by the loose change I carry in my purse, without bothering to learn the difference between the various denominations. We are both migrants, but there is no denying that I have the luxury of  taking my time to understand the shape of coins — and their worth in chai terms. 

Occasionally, Kulveer and I head to Al Hara cafeteria, situated in the residential neighborhood of Karama. This cafeteria’s reputation rests on its vaguely defined ‘disco chai’. It’s difficult to tell what sets this chai apart, but the canny advertising attracts droves of customers. Even in Dubai’s scorching summer, when temperatures regularly hover around 40-45 C and oppressive heat blankets the city, Al Hara does brisk business. In a competitive marketplace, it is clear that the willingness to hustle — and go the extra mile — is an especially crucial prerequisite for success. “Most cafeterias are extremely customer-centric,” said Arva Ahmed, co-founder of Frying Pan Adventures, a company that specialises in food tours around Dubai. “A lot of their innovations are based on what customers request.” Although they often carry an air of slapdash casualness, there is a careful metric that determines every aspect of the food and drink. Ahmed points out that every chai shop has its closely guarded chai recipe. “Some shops use a blend of many brands of tea leaves, and some even add crushed glucose biscuits to make their chai richer and sweeter,” she said. 

Many of Dubai’s cafeterias are attached to or located in close proximity to mosques. This gives them visibility and access to customers who would typically stop by for a glass of karak after prayers.

This ability to adapt, combined with no-nonsense service, is the ‘formula’ that has distinguished cafeterias from one another in the overcrowded food space. In a city of smoke and mirrors, they offer the luxury of an unvarnished experience. “[The cafeterias] are not pretending to be anything that they are not,” Ahmed said. “[You won’t find] all the layers of cosmetic that are there in the rest of Dubai.”

Our explorations of the city often take us to Karama, where squat buildings that badly need a lick of paint house the city’s working classes. In this neighbourhood, marked by a mix of spacious middle class homes and cramped apartments where the dreams of several migrants jostle for room, I am reminded of the higgledy-piggledy rush of Mumbai or Chennai — cities where the grit of everyday life isn’t as glossed over. I feel instantly at home, as if I never left India. 

Karama has a remarkable concentration of restaurants and cafeterias — carved out of every sliver of street space, these establishments feed the appetite of a burgeoning city. Their success often hinges on holding the attention of the city’s large Indian, Pakistani and Filipino communities. Few restaurants in Karama ultimately survive the cut-throat competition, but the cafeterias are never wanting for business. By employing clever marketing strategies and keeping overheads low, they attract a crowd that is evenly divided between those jonesing for a casual snack and those looking for cheap nourishment. 

A majority of these cafeterias, which serve chai but also typically offer a wider range of food and drink to accompany it, are run by generations of Indian migrants, mostly from the South-Indian state of Kerala. Chasing the beguiling dream of making it to ‘the Gulf’ — an aspiration that has propelled waves of migration to the Middle East from Kerala since the ‘70s — these entrepreneurs are largely responsible for the innovation that distinguishes Dubai’s cafeterias. By drawing together culinary influences from India and marrying them with local flavours, they can be credited with creating an oeuvre of snacks that are an accurate reflection of the city’s contemporary social fabric. 

At Oyoun Al Reem, one of the city’s oldest cafeterias, the snacks on offer a include variety of samoons — a mash-up of shawarmas and subway sandwiches — and parotta sandwiches. The most popular parotta sandwiches are the Chips Oman sandwiches, which feature a scattering of the iconic Middle Eastern chips on a layer of Kraft cheese spread.

The most fitting example of this is the parotta sandwich, an ingenious combination of a flaky, layered parotta that is a south Indian staple with assorted fillings, gussied up with condiments such as mayonnaise and hot sauce. Parottas, or parathas as they are known in other parts of India, have always served as a popular vehicle for indulgence. Through the subcontinent, they have inspired a vibrant lexicon of street food, such as Mumbai’s famous ‘frankie’ roll stuffed with spiced potatoes, paneer or chicken, Kolkata’s kathi rolls, and Indore’s ‘egg banjo’ rolls. In South India, refined flour parottas are typically used to mop up curries or chopped up into small pieces to make kottu parotta, popular both in Kerala and Sri Lanka. However, Dubai’s parotta rolls are completely unique — neither completely Indian nor entirely Middle Eastern, they occupy a liminal space between countries and cuisines. 

The immensely customisable fillings of this sandwich-wrap hybrid include fiery, Indian-style pulled chicken, mildly flavoured beef sausages, falafel, boiled eggs, keema or minced beef and my guilty favourite — simply a scattering of crushed Chips Oman, an iconic Middle Eastern brand of potato chips that have an addictive sweet-salty, ketchup-like flavour. The Chips Oman sandwich rightfully enjoys something of a cult status in Dubai and in neighbouring emirates such as Sharjah and Abu Dhabi: it is an uncomplicated, carb-upon-carb formula that endears it equally to Arabs looking for nostalgic familiarity and South Asians like me, seeking the novelty of ‘fusion cuisine’. At the city’s better-known cafeterias, locals often roll up in large SUVs and pick-up trucks, ordering flaky Malabar parotta sandwiches neatly wrapped in wax paper, almost always eaten in their cars with tinted windows. 

Equally, the customers also include those for whom a parotta sandwich is an inexpensive stand-in for a meal. Staples such as the anda paratha (or omelette paratha) have been on cafeteria menus for several decades because the reasonable prices and simplicity of flavours have cemented its popularity; even migrant South Asians unfamiliar with other foods can easily embrace its crusty, flaky savouriness. “Humari pohonch bas utne tak hi jaati thi,” Kulveer tells me. “Our reach extended only up to anda paratha.” In a world where money was tight and the appetite for adventurous eating was limited, anda paratha was a safe choice. 

Flaky Kerala parottas make for a robust casing for these open sandwiches. The sandwich on the left has a filling of pulled rotisserie chicken, lettuce and dakoos, a vinegar-spiked hot sauce. The one on the right is the classic anda paratha or an omelette roll.

The anda paratha and a cup of chai is often the quick lunch-on-the-go for Amarjeet Singh, a taxi driver who tells me about the crushing pressures of his job. A shy man of few words and piercing brown eyes, he shared his numbing frustration of being locked in a permanent race to realise his dreams of educating his two young children in India. His carb-heavy meal costs less than ten dirhams, an important calculation in a life dictated by financial pressures. But, he adds, a cup of chai always offers a temporary reprieve. “Chai peeke dil halka ho jaata hai,” he said. After a cup of chai, the heart feels less burdened. 

During the months I spent researching karak, I was repeatedly struck by the flattened, two-dimensional view we take of economic migrants. Often, their decision to move to another country is chalked down to lack: a lack of money, a lack of education, a lack of options. In food writing, migrants are often described in binaries of success and struggle. But to portray them in this way is to strip them of their agency — which, even in the most challenging circumstances, is still a powerful force. Why does Amarjeet’s or Kulveer’s story invoke our sympathy before we take cognisance of the courage of their decision? Isn’t there something to be said for the tastes and preferences of those with fewer choices but no less ambition? Besides, even when migration is driven by despondency, does that make it less deserving of our admiration? 

From the outside, it may be difficult to fathom why generations of South Asians — Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans  — would choose to withstand the upheaval of leaving their families behind, to work long hours driving taxis or working as housemaids in a foreign country. But even as we acknowledge that this is often not a decision made by choice, it is also important to locate these choices within a more complex narrative of opportunity and ambition. “Migration is not just about sending remittances home,” explained Monishankar Prasad, an independent researcher who is working on a book about migration and the Middle East. “It is also entrepreneurial and aspirational, and it should be seen as an investment towards a better future.” The generations of migrants who moved to Dubai for better prospects rightfully deserve the credit for improvising an unassuming desi drink and creating an entire subculture of eating and drinking around it. 

There is no doubt that Dubai’s cafeterias and chai shops offer a valuable democratic space where the city’s disparate realities have an opportunity to come face-to-face. For me, all the chai I have drunk over the past year has not just given me a sharper appreciation for which shop makes it best — I keep my favourites close to my chest — but also a keener eye for the unexpected ways in which lives intersect in this city. It has made me comprehend that nothing about the Middle East is as obvious as it seems. This isn’t to seek silver linings everywhere or impose a forced symbolism on a cup of karak. But it is to accept that perhaps a one dirham drink tells a more layered story about those who drink it than we imagine possible. 

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*Some names have been changed on request to protect the privacy of interviewees

Vidya Balachander is a food and travel writer and editor currently based in Dubai. Her work explores the intersection of food, communities and geopolitics. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram."

Many thanks to Sharanya Deepak for additional edits.