Karak Chai is Really the Story of South Asian Migrants

The accessible, diasporic brew is a byproduct of Gulf modernization — and its insidious underbelly.

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An Indian tea seller, Rafik, pours karak chai in Dubai, U.A.E., Aug. 24, 2022. Inflation has increased prices, a blow to migrant workers who depend on the drink (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Amar Diwakar


January 17, 2024

Hani A. pulls up in a Toyota Land Cruiser outside Oyoun Al Reem, a cafe in Dubai’s Za’beel district, and honks twice. A young man hustles out and comes up to the car. Hani gestures using rapid finger movements: two orders of karak chai. We promptly receive the brew, piping hot, in six-ounce paper cups for 1.50 dirhams ($0.41) each.

For many Emiratis like Hani, a tech entrepreneur, this drive-thru karak experience was a rite of passage. He grew up regularly having karak with fresh chebab, an Emirati pancake traditionally enjoyed with honey and cheese. 

“Karak is an important part of Emirati identity,” Hani said, explaining its function as a social lubricant at everything from formal to informal gatherings. “It’s common to find both kahwa [traditional Arabic coffee] and karak served at weddings, or when we meet with families and friends.”

The second most widely consumed beverage in the world after water, tea holds a significant place in Emirati culture and that of other Gulf nations. In many ways, this no-frills drink tells the story of Dubai and the Gulf at large — and gives us a glimpse into what’s brewing beneath the surface.

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