Raving about Chai.
In Pakistan, tea is more than just a hot beverage; it is a means of socializing for all age groups and all classes. It is while having tea that connections are made and communication. Tea is what you entertain your guests or visitors with, at home, in the office or on the roadside. Tea is a way to bring people from diverse backgrounds together. It is just a cup of boiled tea leaves mixed with milk but it works wonders. Now some enterprising minds have gone on to start a trend that caters to the chic and trendy, much to the consternation of fashionable tea/coffee cafes.
In recent months, urban areas in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi have witnessed a rather rapid rise in the number of chai (tea) dhabas that attract the chattering classes for a change. Giving a rather unique spin to the regular dhaba that offers doodh patti tea along with anda paratha, the new chai dhabas offer many variations of tea and paratha to a more upscale customer segment.
But what is it about these new dhabas that appeals so much to a class that wouldn't have thought of frequenting such a place a few months back? Why are the spending money and time on just a meagre cup of elaichi chai and achaari paratha and that too in a primitive outdoor setting? To understand the reasons behind the increasing popularity of chai spots, Slogan talked to some regular dhaba frequenters:
Many people we interviewed rated chai dhabas highly on the scale in terms of atmosphere. For many, going to a regular dhaba, with its beaten down appearance and clientele, is not an option. Concerns range from a general lack of security to the absence of an accommodating environment for household members and students where they can have a good time. The modern chai dhabas provide all the benefits of the other dhabas but with a change - a relaxed and casual environment.
"I have been to the place in Karachi called Chai Wala a few times. It provides an excellent ambiance for tea and paratha lovers," says Sateesh, a business analyst in Karachi. "Plus, they have managed to create rather innovative versions of the paratha such as the Nutella paratha and even BBQ paratha. This makes it an ideal place for foodies like me."
Zehra, another regular dhaba, agrees. "There's something about chai at dhabas that kick starts the real 'gup' (conversation) amongst people, thus breaking down any barriers that may exist." A resident of Singapore, Zehra prefers chai dhabas to the more trendy cafes whenever she visits Karachi. She attributes this to the enticing environment such places provide. "One isn't preoccupied with the bells and whistles of an up-market cafe. It's all about you, the chai and the company you have," she adds. "It's casual, unassuming and brings about the best gup shup!"
University student and part-time musician, Ali Altaf, echoes the same sentiments while also highlighting the weather as an important factor. "Winters do help. I honestly cannot imagine sitting outside and having tea during the heat of the summer months!" he says. It must be said, however, that he can always enjoy his tea in the cool outdoor breeze any evening in Karachi.
Another major reason for going to chai dhabas that most of our interviewees pointed out was the cost. Though still fairly expensive as compared to the regular dhabas, in terms of average money spent on a night out in town, such outlets are still at the lower end of the scale.
For students, such no-frills cafes are ideal. With most of them getting by on their pocket money, chai dhabas offer the perfect solution other than burning a hole in their pockets. As university student Yasir, very succinctly puts it, "It's good sasta (cheap) entertainment!"
Even household folk sometimes prefer the open air over an air-conditioned setting. Says Saadia, a housewife, "Most people cannot afford to spend Rs. 1000 per head every time they go out. They are looking for something that is simple, yet offers an enjoyable experience. The chai dhabas are the answer."
The various kinds of food items offered by the chai dhabas were also ranked highly by our focus group. Dhabas such as Chai Wala, Dabang Chai and Chotu Chai Wala have completely revolutionized the menu of traditional dhabas and have added their own signature to each.
Most dhabas have menus inspired by their customers' taste preferences. Nutella Paratha, Chicken and Cheese Paratha along with BBQ Paratha are just some of the items on offer, accompanied by the regular Anda Cheese Paratha and Achaari Paratha. And just in case one gets bored of the typical Elaichi Chai, there are many other tea varieties to choose from, such as Adrak Chai, Coffee Chai, Zeera Qahwa, Daal Cheeni Qahwa, Peshawari Qahwa and, believe it or not, Cadbury Chai.
"Such places cater to all kinds of chai lovers," explains Anum, a young mother of one. "They offer all varieties of parathas, all of which are extremely delicious and which cater to a wide range of tastes. For example, the taste and texture of parathas at Chai Shai is much softer as compared to those sold by Chai Wala, which is crispier."
Many of those interviewed were quick to nominate their favourites amongst the plethora of teas and flavourful food items. "Nothing beats Damthal's doodh patti at Ayesha Manzil near Aga Khan School," says Sarah Faheem, an executive.
Even celebrities seem to have been pulled into the furore surrounding such outlets. Anam Tanveer, upcoming actress who has become a well-known face in the television serial industry, shared her views about the trend. "I prefer Autaak opposite Lollywood Cafe", she says. "They serve tea in the traditional earthen glass which, somehow, adds to its rustic flavour. Also, Filli's Zaafrani Chai, though a little expensive, is one of the better ones, thanks to its rather rich taste."
In spite of their growth in status, many of the chai dhabas have critics too. Many people fail to see the point of spending money on something that can be easily prepared at home. Others insist that there is still room for more improvement. "Although novel as far as most ventures go, I still believe that they are not only overpriced but also overrated," says Naufal, a business executive in Karachi. "In order to differentiate themselves from other local cafes, these chai dhabas need to focus on improving the taste of the food they offer."
Sarah also agrees on the need for improvement, saying such outlets should also think of security and make arrangements accordingly. "I would really like to see places like Chai Wala and Chotu Chai Wala employ one or two security guards around the area in which they operate as D.H.A is not safe for prolonged periods of time."
For some, the modern tea renditions just do not match the quality and taste of the original. Amasch, a content executive, prefers to stick to the basics and, instead, honour the one true version of dhabay wali chai. "None of these popular dhabas come close to the original Pathan dhabas, though they provide a platform for households and certain elite to experience the same kind of atmosphere, and a much safer and more controlled environment," she says. "Still, the chai offered is not as good and is too expensive."
Whatever the general view about the chai spots, they have immense appeal and attract people from the upper and middle classes. Whether the dhabas have a future or are just a fad is the big question mark.