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How Indian immigrants shaped Qatar's tea culture

From kadak to karak, here's how Qatar co-opted India’s chai to make it their de facto national drink, decades after it was brought in by homesick migrant workers

Qatar's karak tea has a sweet, spicy and milky flavour. (Istockphoto)

By Raul Dias

LAST PUBLISHED 29.03.2023  |  10:09 AM IST

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As far as pronunciations go, Arabic, as a language, is most unforgiving to a handful of Roman alphabets. Conveniently interchanging one for the other, as the situation might demand. But one does notice, that, the two most widely substituted of the 26, happen to be ‘P’ and ‘D’; though, not with each other.

So, while the name Pepsi is pronounced Bepsi, the colloquial Bambaiya Hindi adjective denoting hardness or strength, kadak comes out as karak. And in a country like Qatar, this becomes most apparent in the case of karak tea. An omnipotent sweet-n-spicy milky hot tea, that’s had more than just the odd alphabet altered and rearranged along its almost 60-year-old journey as the Gulf nation’s de facto national drink.


So popular, that it even has a dedicated song I need a karak, by famous Middle Eastern DJ Bliss. Replete with lyrics like “I need a karak in the morning, I need a karak in the evening..." extolling its all-day-long perk-me-up abilities.

Teeing off
It is said that our very own famously sweet, milky and masaledar kadak chai breached its desi borders and reached Qatari shores in the early 1960s. This, as it hitched a ride along with the multitude of Indian emigrants who are said to have built cities like Doha, the country’s capital with their blood and sweat. Fuelled by endless cups of scalding hot kadak chai, that they used as both sustenance, and as a potent means to quell their homesickness.

Over the years, the craze for this type of hot tea permeated the local Qatari culture and became a mainstay at homes and restaurants alike. Albeit, with a few minor tweaks and adjustments. While the original kadak chai is a super sweet, almost syrupy amalgamation of strong (but, obviously) black tea powder (never tea bags), sugar, fresh milk and a cache of aromatic spices like ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and the ubiquitous cardamom, Qatari karak is a slightly different specimen. Far from ersatz, this version still retains the legendary punch of refreshing flavour that typifies the original.

Here, black tea powder, canned evaporated milk, tonnes of sugar and cardamom are boiled together and then simmered over a low flame to intensify the flavour. While these are the basic ingredients to an authentic karak, it is not entirely blasphemous to add other spices like cinnamon, and the Middle East’s favourite saffron to the fray. And while the evaporated milk gives the tea a creamy, unctuous mouthfeel, a bit of condensed milk is also slipped in occasionally for a more caramel-y colour and viscosity.

High, low and luxe
Just like it is in India, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that you can get your karak fix for a couple of Qatari Rials (QR.1-4 or 22-90, depending on the size) in Doha at anytime and at any place in this compact city that fronts a section of the Persian Gulf. From the bustling Souk Wakif with its many karak kiosks and mid-level karak chains like Chapati & Karak, to high-end hotels, everybody wants in on the karak action. Often, with their own fancy spins like iced karak, a milkshake iteration, karak panna cotta and the recently launched karak ice cream at another chain called Poori & Karak.

But ask any local Dohaite and the number one place they’d recommend is the restaurant-infested arterial Al Matar Al Qadeem Road, known more commonly as Old Airport Road. This is the original hub and bastion of the Indian immigrant community with its many 24-hours open karak tea shops. Fronted by men—mostly from the Moplah Muslim community of Kerala’s North Malabar region—these shops are always busy with tea runners offering you curb-side service while you order in from your cars. All you have to do is honk and they will come take your order and serve you a paper cup brimming forth with pure joy.


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Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.