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Maliha drives halfway across town for her favourite cup of ‘pink’ tea while Priyanka, a nurse at a local hospital, makes it a point to stop by her local tea shop every day and enjoy a healthy ‘biryani’ chai. Mary Ann too does not let a day go by without having a ‘disco’ chai after work.
These are just a few of the UAE’s legion of tea lovers, a drink discovered in 2737 BC by Chinese Emperor Shen Nung.
Today, there are over 3,000 varieties of tea available in the world, each with its own unique characteristics. Many of them can be found in our multicultural part of the world, where drinking tea, or chai as it is popularly called, is not just a popular pastime – it’s a passion that has been joyfully celebrated for over 80 years.
Flip a coin over your shoulder and it will probably land near a tea shop. No kidding. There are hundreds, thousands of tea shops scattered across the Emirates, all of which serve delightful and very affordable teas that are brewed by artisan tea makers from all parts of the world.
Khaleej Times opted to go on a tea lover’s odyssey to uncover why everyone is going gaga over teas with exotic names and ingredients, all of which go beyond the realm of the regular cups of tea your Mum conjured up in the evenings.
So what’s the story behind these exotic teas that are the talk of the town?
Every one of them has an interesting tale to tell, starting with the all-time UAE favourite, ‘disco’ chai — made from a robust blend of tea dust from Assam and reinforced with a touch of extra-bold, green Alleppey cardamom from Kerala.
But why call it disco chai?
The art of making a perfect cup of tea revolves around obtaining the perfect boiling point with fresh milk and water, which is approximately 190 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point, bubbles begin to form and your milky white water begins to swirl and sway in the samovar (copper vessel), like a dancer. This action led to it being conferred with the title 'disco' chai.
Priyanka’s ‘Biriyani’ Chai is an all-time favourite with many customers as it is a mildly spicy, milk-free tea that is tempered with chopped ginger and a hint of cinnamon. Garnished with fresh mint leaves and blended with lemon juice and honey, the recipe led to it being given an unorthodox name.
Meanwhile, the ‘Kashmiri’ chai that lures Maliha from her home across town is made from green tea leaves sourced from the northernmost geographical region of the Indian subcontinent. It is garnished with crushed nuts and baking soda until it turns pink in colour.
There's also Dubai’s unique ‘gold tea’, infused with pure 24-karat gold flakes and mixed with saffron, the most expensive spice in the world.
Most of the UAE’s tea lovers talk about the ritual of having a cup with friends or just having a drink on the way to work. It’s a big part of their lives and they say it’s hard to live without.
“It’s something that I absolutely love to do and drinking a well-made cup of Kashmiri chai is a source of comfort and satisfaction,” said Maliha, from Lahore.
“You may ask me why I crave a cup of hot tea in this heat, but it doesn’t matter whether it's summer or winter, I love my cup of ‘pink’ tea. I tried making it at home but could never get it right, neither the colour nor taste. So why bother, when I can drive across town to have one made for me the way I like it.”
Priyanka comes from Chennai in South India and says: “I like most teas but the biryani chai is awesome. It’s so original, so unique, so flavoursome.”
Mary Ann became a fan of tea after arriving in Dubai from her native Philippines, where she did not really drink hot beverages all that much. “A cup of tea helps me unwind after a hard day’s work. It's one of the rare times that I get to sit still, relax and just enjoy sipping at my tea,” she says.
Teas from all corners of the world have found their way to the Emirates with some of the earliest dating back almost 100 years to when travellers from Yemen, India, Iran and other Arab countries came to the country to trade spices or search for fine pearls.
The earliest tea was the classic Emirati version which is referred to as ‘Karak’ Chai, and even today remains a favourite because of its simple flavours derived from black tea, cardamom, and condensed milk.
In the following years, many varieties from the Indian sub-continent and even the UK have found a niche for themselves.
Karak House in Downtown Dubai is a popular haunt for locals, while tea lovers from the Indian subcontinent are spoilt for choice with an assortment of shops brewing aromatic masala chai.
Murshid Bazar in Deira boasts one of the oldest tea shops dating back to the seventies, while Modern Café in Hor Al Anz, an ancient suburb in Dubai, still runs its five-decade-old tea shop.
Japanese tea, known for its mild flavours and healing properties, can be found in Dubai’s many malls, together with the green tea variety.
Lovers of English breakfast tea and Earl Grey are also catered to together with Filipino tea lovers who are fond of iced and bubble tea, which is made of milk and chewy tapioca and originated in Taiwan.
Tea is produced from tea leaves or buds of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. Its origins can be traced back to 2700 BCE in China before it made its way to Europe and then spread worldwide.
It is the second most popular drink in the world, after water, and has become an inescapable activity in everyone’s daily routine.
Camellia sinensis is cultivated mainly in tropical climates and, as a result, eight countries that are the leading producers of tea are located on this continent.
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