Oman’s love affair with karak tea

HAMMAM AL BADI –

With temperature rising to as high as 40 degrees during summer, it seemed logical for one to cool off with a fizzy drink or fresh juice. But Omanis are staying put with their favourite cuppa: karrak.
The nectary beverage is proving to be a bestseller in the capital region as is evident from the explosion of karak tea stalls across the city. And it’s not only Omanis who are addicted to karak but great numbers of tea-loving expatriate residents as well.
Indeed, karak tea has amalgamated itself into the cultural ethos of Muscat. Karak tea outlets are becoming hubs for social rendezvous involving friends and, in upscale parts of the city, even business executives. Just as Starbucks, Costa, Second Cup and Gloria Jean’s Coffee have been associated with upmarket social meeting spots, karak tea outlets are becoming the more downmarket version of them.
Karak tea stalls are mushrooming around the city by leaps and bounds. According to a researcher, who has just begun studying the ‘karak tea phenomenon’, the brew in its current form began life in the city in 2013.
Since then, shops and stalls have opened up in virtually every neighbourhood in the capital region, and on every street corner in denser parts of the city. And given the growing popularity of the drink, the number of shops keeps growing exponentially, the researcher points out.
So what’s the secret behind the karak tea phenomenon in Muscat? Some credited it to Oman’s ingrained passion for coffee (which translates in today’s modern times into anything steaming hot, sugary-sweet and served in small disposable cups), with an added twist: cardamom flavor. Call it karak, kadak or chai haleeb, it’s been sipped by the gallons at outlets around the city.
And that’s the original karak tea! But innovative-minded expatriate Bangladeshi and Indian tea-sellers have added new flavours of karak tea to their offerings.
“We offer a wide range of milk-based and non-milk flavours of karak tea for our customers,” says Haider, a Bangladeshi expatriate who runs a well-patronised stall in Al Khuwair.
“There is, of course, the hugely popular cardamom flavoured tea, which accounts for 90 per cent of our daily sales. But some customers also prefer saffron, mint, thyme and other spice bases karak teas. The ‘sulaimani’ and tea-bag based offerings, which are not strictly karak teas, are offered as well,” he added.
For a growing number of Omanis, karak tea drinking is something of an addiction. Take Salim al Siyabi, for example, a government sector employee, who begins his day with a cup of karak tea.
“Starting my working day without karak is a big mistake. I find myself generally disoriented and in a bad mood.”
Salim’s favourite haunt is the tea stall near the Higher College of Technology (HCT) in Al Khuwair.
“Everyone in the neighbourhood, as well as those driving past, seem to want in on the special karak teas offered by this shop. It’s not rare to see dozens of cars pulling over till late in the night for a cuppa. And because it’s a narrow single-lane street, there are traffic snarls in the area,” he shared.
As tea-drinkers wait in their cars, a small army of servers zip in and out of the stall carrying trays with steaming cups of karak tea. The cups are passed through car windows briefly rolled down while the exchange is made. Most clients also place orders for servings of traditional Omani bread sandwiched with eggs, omelets or chicken with a choice of Nutella, honey and cheese as spreads.
Many drive-in customers have come up with their own signature hand gestures to signal to the servers their choice of teas and breads. Speed is of the essence, or the servers risk getting bombarded with honks from the impatient customers. For the most part, the service is quick – which is one of the strengths of the karak tea business.
Saud al Abri, an English teacher in private school in Muscat, considers himself a ‘tea-aholic’! “My favourite used to be karak tea or sulaimani, but now I opt for a brew called ‘khusoosi’, which costs 200 baizas. Karak tea is now part of Omani popular culture,” he said.
Mahmoud al Salti, a public sector employee, is a karak tea buff, although of late, he worries that too much of the brew can be unhealthy particularly as some stalls are not forthcoming about the distinctive additive in their tea that makes it extra special.
“It’s well known that the primary ingredients are tea leaves, milk and sugar, and possibly cardamom. But there is something else that gives it that addictive flavour. After a bout of stomach acidity, and on the advice of my doctor, I’ve reduced my intake from eight cups daily on average, to just one or two cups max. I drink lots of hot water instead.”
The secret, if any, is in the way how karak tea is made, says Haider of the Al Khuwair tea stall.
“As we have to establish our own loyal customer base, we try to develop our own distinctive karak tea. Customers become used to one type and continue to patronize this type of tea – which is actually the secret by the popularity of karak tea in general.”
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