It is 9:30am and Vincent Joseph has just finished his breakfast of puri-bhaji at Tadmur Cafeteria; a place well-known for its value meals and snacks, apart from Karak Chai which is perhaps the hottest-selling item on its menu, on Jamal Abdel Nasr Street in Sharjah. Vincent has lived in Sharjah for over 13 years and works as a salesman in Ajman. Over this 13-year long period, he has never once failed to begin his day with the delicious breakfast fare at Tadmur cafeteria: set dosa, idli, puri-bhaji, anda-paratha, Bonda, etc., to name a few.
The cafeteria in the UAE is frequented by people from all rungs of the social ladder and exemplifies the culture of synthesis that is the core of the UAE. Friendships are formed over brief meals, almost always beginning with an inquiry about jobs and employers. Vincent has a circle of friends that collects around the same time and after office happenings have been discussed, the web of familial stories unfolds- you know, the regular: who said what to whom and the next expected vacation back home. The environment in Tadmur Cafeteria is archetypal of small eateries in the UAE and is almost a life essential for many. People are ingenuous, share honest conversation and food, and leave to continue their work.
Lunches are ceremonious affairs where a little more time accommodates meals with a variety of accompaniments like poppadum, a generous scoop of mixed pickle and salad. “The fish meals at Tadmur cafeteria are my favorite”, says Vincent, who also recommends it to friends and asks them to drop by sometimes to relish a lunch of chicken sukka, chilli chicken or a Friday special; Biryani. Vincent is like family to the cafeteria staff and during rush hour, he doesn’t hesitate to help with service. He informs me of a hot beverage he developed at the cafeteria, which he likes to call “Chaapi” (Chai+Kaapi) which essentially is a drink made of tea leaves (chai) and coffee (also called ‘kaapi’). Watch Vincent speak enthusiastically about this unique drink:
Most cafeterias and casual restaurants in the UAE offer the ‘chai karak’ or ‘karak chai’ (‘karak’ meaning strong) on its menu. A popular hot beverage in the country, the karak chai or simply ‘karak’, as it is more commonly referred to, is a plain tea that migrant workers from India (specifically Kerala) developed as a quick and efficient substitute to the traditional cup of chai served back home. The popular ‘Chai Karak’ is a mixture of regular black tea (prepared) and evaporated milk (mostly a brand called ‘Rainbow’) that takes almost no time to pour into cups and at least a dozen or more cup requests are easily met. Cafeterias have become a classic today and some even have cult status though they were initially set up for pocket-friendly food near offices where employees could have a quick meal or snack with a beverage. Some hugely popular cafeterias were the ones that operated around the old Sharjah fruits and vegetables market, the countless ones that still exist around what is called the ‘Sharjah cinema area'(the cinema no longer exists but such is the effect of some landmarks!) and some around industrial areas.
A large teapot bearing signs of use can be spotted in every cafeteria, simmering with tea leaves and water, releasing a gentle aroma before getting mixed in stronger scents of curry leaves, onions and dry, powdered masala. Moideen Kunhi, the hardest worker in the kitchen of Tadmur cafeteria, also owns the charming eatery and multi-tasks as chef, food server and delivery person. Originally from Kasaragod in Kerala, Moideen arrived in the UAE about 43 years ago to work in a paper bag factory where he worked for 24 years. A period of three years passed during which he wasn’t employed and that germinated the idea to start a cafeteria business. Content that his family has finally made it to the UAE from Kerala just three years ago, Moideen smiles saying he returns home every year during the holy month of Ramadan. He usually has breakfast in the cafeteria comprising of dosa or idli and highly recommends the Keema-Parotta from his kitchen.
It has been 16 years since Tadmur cafeteria opened its doors and today, they sell at least 500 cups of Chai Karak daily, apart from providing a space to various people of all nationalities and age groups to take a break, talk and share light banter.
The deliciously sweet, milky beverage has a strong fan following among Emiratis who usually pop by for a cup or two along with a unique snack- the Chips Oman sandwich which is a ‘samoon’ or a finger bun slit sideways along the middle stuffed with a generous slather of cream cheese and crushed Chips Oman. While this combination is nothing short of divine, snacks like samosa pair very well with the karak. Off late, Emirati restaurants in the UAE have begun listing the ‘Chai Karak’ in their menus, possibly as an homage to this harmony and synthesis of the culture of expatriates and Emiratis in the UAE.
Cafeterias in the UAE are places brimming with fellowship and congeniality. They are institutions that symbolize the multi-cultural exchange and assimilation of human values among the various peoples that have spent a good part of their lives in the country and call it home. The next time you walk or drive around a street and spot a cafeteria, please walk in, take a spot, savor the company and most certainly, the simple, homely food!