Dubai: The UAE and India share a long history of close cultural and commercial ties. And two friends living in Dubai decided to give up their thriving corporate careers to create a delectable fusion of the two cultures — very much in keeping with the long tradition of friendship and bonhomie between the two nations.
Meet Emirati Ahmed Kazim and Indian expat Justin Joseph, founders of a homegrown tea concept called Project Chaiwala. The company launched in 2017 takes tea to a whole new level. For the record, the word “chaiwala” is a Hindi term, a literal translation of which means “the tea person” and Project Chaiwala has a lot to do with the nostalgic charm of street tea cafes in India. What Kazim has done is take traditional recipes of Indian tea, snacks and spread them out in a modern setting.
Without just adopting a tea recipe and reproducing it for public consumption, Kazim has done his due research on the beverage by travelling to India and its tea estates, before launching the project in UAE.
“The intersection between Emirati and Indian cultures is very deep. ‘Chai Karak’ or ‘Karak’ tea is a staple, for example, in my household. Every morning, my breakfast is ‘chai’ (tea) and toast. Eating a toast that has been dipped in hot tea leaves a lingering taste in the mouth. You can be from any emirate in the UAE, but a common denominator is ‘Karak chai’. In fact, a cafe that serves ‘Karak’ tea is our first touch point once we are in the car. It is simply embedded in our culture,” said Kazim whose mother is a Bahraini and father is an Emirati.
“Drinking tea is a fundamental part of the ancestral culture of the Middle East. Every day, we find new and interesting proposals in the market as far as tea is concerned. Yet, the most important aspect of a delicious tea is that it should relax our spirit and impulses to keep us going through the day,” said Joseph, co-founder of Project Chaiwala.
“Growing up to street ‘chai’ vendors and cafeterias in the region, people know the significance of a cup of tea — enjoying it with friends and family, having it midday, after a meal, or sipping on it late in the evening. This ritual is the essence of what Project Chaiwala came to be. We are a celebration of tea and its street culture,” said Joseph, who is of Indian origin, but was raised in Dubai.
He added: “I am a third culture kid living in Dubai. India and its culture are unique to both nationals and expatriates in the UAE. Although my family drank tea at home every day, I always knew it as ‘Karak’, which I drank at some of the famous shops in Bur Dubai and Satwa. These were some of the fondest memories of growing up with my friends. When driving, the first stop was always at a ‘Karak’ teashop.
Kazim and Joseph’s shared passion for tea is truly remarkable and it is perhaps this strong bonding over a perfect cuppa that saw the duo, employees at Deloitte & Touche, give up their full-time corporate jobs and follow their passion.
How ‘Karak’ tea is made in UAE cafes
A big bowl of water (almost three litres) is kept on the gas stove for boiling. The tea powder, a secret mix, is then added to the boiling water, followed by two spoons of cardamom powder. In another water jug, one cup of sugar and two litres of tetra pack milk are mixed and then added to the boiling tea. After the flavoured mixture brews to the brim, it is strained into a large flask. Each cup of hot tea is then poured from the flask and topped with a dab of saffron powder.
Kazim has done his Bachelors in Islamic Finance and is a certified public accountant (CPA), while Joseph is an industrial engineer with a master’s degree in finance. They have both worked in various roles including audit, consultancy and financial advisory. From financial advisory to becoming a ‘chaiwala’, Kazim’s journey with tea has been an fascinating one right through.
His passion for tea has seen him set a new goal.
“In the next two years, we hope to build a local fresh ‘chai’ presence in the Gulf Cooperation Council market. The plan is to celebrate the ‘chai’ culture in UAE every day through joyous experiences and refreshed classic flavours,” said Kazim who comes from a family of merchants. “Becoming an entrepreneur was just the natural career path for me as a result.”
Creating a fusion and street culture
“Project Chaiwala started off with a pop up at Cinema Akil in their temporary setup in 2017 selling chai. It was our first ever semi permanent location. When Cinema Akil was looking for an F&B partner to operate its concession stand and, the founder approached us to run it as an homage to the chai shops in Dubai’s old stand alone cinemas. That became our first flagship store.”
“In my travels, I realised that going out with friends in India or with co-workers to share a milk tea, with a hint of spices like ginger or cardamom, is a common ritual. The tea stalls, carts and shops are a vital gathering place for people who want to take a break and catch up. And yet, drinking tea is not the only thing that happens on the streets. There’s so much to India’s street culture, which I came across every day such as art, music, fashion, gastronomy, design, dance or even sports. Essentially, the country celebrates street culture in all its beauty. That is what we have tried to create at Project Chaiwala,” explained Kazim.
As this reporter visits one of its branches at Al Serkal Avenue, the look and feel of a typical street tea cafe in India is unmistakable — be it the popular “Glucose” or ‘Parle G’ biscuits or rusks on offer — to be dipped into a hot cup of tea — or the clay cups to serve the ‘chai’, or the Bollywood music playing at the store. Framed photos of famous Bollywood stars and movie posters adorn the walls of the cafe. We try the simple tea and then the famous ‘Karak’ tea.
“In Darjeeling, we stayed at the tea estates. In the evening, when everyone would leave the garden, Joseph and I would sit and brainstorm ideas on how we can launch the concept. It was a great experience.”
Kazim said there has been no looking back since the tea cafes were launched in 2017. “The Cinema at Al Serkal Avenue was looking for an owner. We launched the cafe first there. Today, we have six outlets — our most recent one being at the Time Out market in Souq Al Bahar,” said Kazim.
Today, Project Chaiwala receives all its tea from Naxalbari Single Tea Estate in Darjeeling, while spices and fresh milk (and milk alternatives) are sourced locally to brew ‘chai’ every day.
Dealing with Covid and numbers
“When the footfall dropped during the movement restrictions, we had to navigate our way carefully. We really benefited from advertisements, reaching customers digitally at their homes. Now, we are launching our e-commerce portal with the idea to make our ‘chai’ brand cool and accessible to a whole lot of people. We are working with the best to source the freshest organic tea produce. Everything we generate through this business is being reinvested.”
Ahmed Kazim at Project Chaiwala at the Cinema Akil
Family values key
Kazim is one of six siblings. “We have all been taught early in our lives to be financially independent. In many ways, my childhood and upbringing were instrumental in the launching of Project Chaiwala. It is important to have a dream, a passion. To see your dream or passion fulfilled is the biggest success that one can get.”
[Edited by Sanjib Kumar Das, Assistant Editor]