Neon Lights, White Foam Cups, by Alia Al Sabi
We stood there, in the tiny hole-in-the-wall style cafeteria, watching in fascination the incessant tea-tray traffic moving back and forth between the kitchen and a sea of engines parked outside, their owners eagerly awaiting their midnight syrupy-sweet treats. Our intrusion into this compact all-male territory of busy bees tending simultaneously to too many a demanding customer elicited a few irritated grumbles but we focused our attention on the chief tea maker as he masterfully distributed various ingredients into a display of white foam cups. Rabee-ul-Haqq – that’s his name and it literally translates into The Spring of Truth – appeared gymnast-like, balancing precise ratios of condensed milk and golden-brown tea into this cup and that, to make karak. It even has its own coded language. Regulars know that all you really need to do is signal with your fingers from afar the number of cups you want and minutes later, the tea messenger is at your car window with your order for a dirham per cup. That’s nineteen times less than the cost of a cookie-crumble-mocha-frappuccino from Starbucks. The bigger establishments serve intricately layered fruit cocktails with names like Burj al Arab and Burj Khalifa – obviously – but the contender for most popular drink undoubtedly remains of the karak variety.
Mostly relegated to the backstreets of many UAE neighborhoods, these popular tea shacks cater to thousands of customers every day. During Ramadan, in that post-iftar stretch that lasts well into the night before the break of dawn, you will find wayfarers from near and far flocking to this modern-day neon oasis for their daily dose of caffeinated sugar in a cup. Attempts (mine) to recreate this addictive concoction at home or in the office have been numerous. Often the result is a slightly embarrassing version of the original – pale in color and flavor and consumed in a mug (which by the way is just wrong). Some say the secret lies in the larger than life rustic golden pot seen at all karak joints – that the invisible magic ingredient is in the rings of accumulated tea stain, lining the inside of this sturdy container sitting on the stove as the tea simmers over a constant fire. I think there is some truth to that (and no, this has nothing to do with my miserable karak-making efforts).