World: How samovar tea is warming hearts in Qatar

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Doha, Qatar – Mohammed Ali, a restaurateur in Qatar’s capital Doha, has a story about a female customer who would come to his shop every day with a flask and have it filled with karak tea.

One day, her driver brought the flask and said the woman was in a hospital ready to give birth. But she needed her karak.

The next day, she showed up with her flask.

The restaurant Ali referred to was not a popular brand but a 65-year-old nondescript eatery on Doha’s Old Airport Road.

The popularity of the tea can be judged by the fact that the country’s kaftheeriyas (cafes) serve thousands of cups of karak daily, the majority charging just 1 riyal ($0.27) a cup.

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Walking into the shop is optional. You can honk your car’s horn and someone will be by the side of your vehicle within seconds, ready to take your order.

Before the era of Instagram and social media influencers, finding a winning karak recipe was the key to pulling the numbers.

A tea-maker pours decoction into the milk from a cloth sieve in the final phase of making samovar tea [Photo courtesy: Shiraz Sithara] © Provided by Al Jazeera A tea-maker pours decoction into the milk from a cloth sieve in the final phase of making samovar tea [Photo courtesy: Shiraz Sithara]

“The kaftheeriyas experimented with different blends of spices, milk and tea leaves to create flavours,” Ali added.

The business hardly fails if the flavour is catchy and the location is good.

Even though karak’s arrival in Qatar is a slightly disputed story, the consensus is that the South Asian expats in the country brought the milky tea with them.

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The Moplah Muslims of the North Malabar region in India, who were a land-owning, agrarian community, now monopolise Qatar’s karak business.

“When agriculture went bust, youngsters from feudal families found the Gulf region as a haven where they could cash in doing any type of work away from home and without shame,” Rafeeq Thiruvalloor, a Malayalam writer from North Malabar, said.

These are the same Malabaris who have brought samovar tea to Qatar.

Tea-maker Salman beats samovar tea to make a foam in the top layer at Kismath Restaurant [Photo courtesy: Shiraz Sithara] © Provided by Al Jazeera Tea-maker Salman beats samovar tea to make a foam in the top layer at Kismath Restaurant [Photo courtesy: Shiraz Sithara]

Samovar and karak look the same but it is the latter that is suddenly rising up the popularity charts and gathering a lot of interest among Qatar residents.

A karak, by default, is strong, as the name implies. Samovar is strong only when requested. As it is now served, karak uses canned, processed milk, which gives it a thick consistency. Samovar uses fresh milk.

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With karaks, the options are limited when it comes to sugar levels. Karaks in Qatar are oversweet, unless ordered otherwise.

But, advance order is a requisite for a sugary samovar cup. You can walk into most samovar tea shops and tell them what you want: strong, medium, light, waterless, well-beaten or unbeaten.

Before samovar, some karak tea shops served “fresh-milk tea” upon request – at double the price. There was also a “Sri Lankan tea”, simply the beaten version of the karak.

Sajeer bin Abbas, a software engineer, said he stopped having tea at shops in Oman, where he worked for seven years, because teabag-infused karak served there disgusted him.

“Now, samovar tea is one of the pleasures of working in Qatar,” he said.

Tea-maker Salman adds a final droplet of decoction into samovar tea to add a strong flavour before serving [Photo courtesy: Shiraz Sithara] © Provided by Al Jazeera Tea-maker Salman adds a final droplet of decoction into samovar tea to add a strong flavour before serving [Photo courtesy: Shiraz Sithara]

No one remembers seeing a samovar tea shop in Qatar before 2014. Now, while the number is still shy of 100, one would witness large gatherings outside the ones selling it.

Samovar shops thrive in nostalgia. In Fereej Bin Mahmoud’s Chaya Kada, paraphernalia includes bicycles fixed on the wall, old radios and an imitation installation of the three-wheeled tuk-tuk rickshaws.

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New Plaza’s wall paint shows a semi-open teashop in the backwaters of Kerala.

In Asian Town’s Metro Restaurant, black and white photographs of a colonial Indian fort town adorn the wall.

Those suffering from homesickness can get a quick cure.

By most accounts, Lordz Restaurant, tucked away in Al-Thumama’s Furjan Market 36, is Qatar’s first samovar tea shop. The shop is known as Sayyidinte Chayakada (Sayyid’s teashop) and its owner, 39-year-old Sayid Komban Chalil, said he launched the business in 2014.

He landed in Qatar 20 years ago and worked at his father’s cafeteria in Qatar’s southern city of Al-Wakra. Eight years ago, he brought a samovar, the utensil, from Kozhikode’s Copper Bazaar, in the Indian state of Kerala.

Until recently, Chalil’s stencilled image with a “Sayyidinte Chayakada” logo was embossed on the glass door. He said authorities asked him to remove it but the name exists on its website, on one of the inside walls and on the jerseys of three cricket clubs he sponsors.

Chalil, who is now present only in the evenings, said he was very hyper and active when he set up the shop. A stable business has mellowed him down a bit, but his manners are still charming. Until a recent repaint, posters of old Indian movies donned the shop walls, rendering it a rustic look of old teashops in Malabar towns.

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On weekends, street cricketers would flood his shop. Before the business made him busy, he played for the Thumama Boys club. On the wall where the film posters once were, trophies now sit on a shelf.

A samovar tea-making stage [Photo courtesy: Dosa Street] © Provided by Al Jazeera A samovar tea-making stage [Photo courtesy: Dosa Street]

Chalil’s samovar is a barrel-shaped copper utensil that keeps 40 litres of water boiling on a gas stove below a faucet.

The bigger hole on the top lid acts as an inlet for water. The samovar contained a milk-boiling vessel, too. It had a smaller decoction mug – a cone-shaped utensil with a flat bottom to sit on its own.

The holes release excess steam and save energy by boiling milk and decoction, a potent sugarless black tea.

Tea dust is kept in a cloth sieve to avoid straining later. The sieve looks like a sock cut in half at an ankle bend, held on to a small fishnet handle.

If you want a cup of sugarless black tea, 1 ounce (about 30ml) of decoction with 3-4 ounces (90-120ml) of boiling water is enough. But samovar tea patrons prefer milk tea. So, the tea-maker adds a ladle of milk boiling on a nearby stove. Add a spoon of sugar with milk decoction and then “beat” it.

“The milk boiling on the steam on top of the lid is a reserve. The tea-maker can’t always raise his hand to take it from there,” explained a tea-maker.

For beating, the tea-maker lifts and lowers his hand in a rapid, back-and-forth movement, pouring tea from a mug to a cup.

People call it metre tea if the distance between the hands is nearly a metre. People watch these hand motions too. The consistency, foaminess and taste reach a new level with the beating. It is nearly impossible to replicate that at home.

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Beyond beating, the ratio of the ingredients, the heat dynamics of the stove, milk, water, and decoction are essential skills of a tea-maker who is called tea ustad (tea master).

In presence at Lodz was Harshad Kuttipran, a samovar fan who explores new places for tea and hopes to have a shop of his own.

His late father had teashops in India’s Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka states. Growing up in Kerala, he remembered that teashops were institutions for socialising, where patrons could read newspapers and listen to the radio.

“The news would lead to heated political debates that veer to aggression,” Kuttipran said.

While people like Chalil are optimistic about the prospects of samovar tea in Qatar, many reckon karak tea will remain top of the desired list.

The top lid of the samovar [Photo courtesy: Dosa Street] © Provided by Al Jazeera The top lid of the samovar [Photo courtesy: Dosa Street]

Muhammed Shibli, general manager at Tea Time, a chain with more than 50 branches across Qatar, said karak tea has a steady fan base in the country.

“People have more than 10 cups a day. We will remain serving karaks and only karaks for the time being,” Shibli said.

A partner of Zanjabeel karak chain said his branches would serve only karak. However, Dosa Street, his south Indian cuisine venture in the Ain Khaled area of Doha, serves samovar tea. Personally, he prefers karak.

Samovar tea-makers’ habit of putting another layer of decoction over the foam sometimes leaves an intense soreness in the mouth, he added.

Madinat Khalifa’s Kismath Restaurant is a place where tea-maker Salman has no time to talk. The only thing he said is that he makes 700 cups of tea during his shift.

In neighbourhoods like Matar Qadeem, where thousands of youngsters live, and where gyms and barbershops are open round the clock, samovar tea shops provide a sense of community, or “vibes”, as they put it.

Although samovar tea sellers say they have Qatari patrons, they are too irregular to set a trend.

Many branches of House of Tea, another chain, have recently drifted towards samovar tea though, said Kuttipran, the tea fan.

“Still, I don’t think Qataris and other Arabs will like the samovar, which is also generally less sugary than karaks.”

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