Matching the spirit of Dubai as the city that never sleeps, stands Al Hara, a vintage teashop in Hamdan Colony Karama, which is buzzing 24/7 with a bunch of die-hard tea addicts from around the city, round the clock.
Measuring out life in teaspoons
The favourite haunt of people-on-the-go and with odd duty hours such as courier boys, limo drivers, cab drivers, salesmen and even those living in the local neighbourhood, Al Hara is second home to this tribe looking for familiar aromas and flavours that a single sip of tea recreates in their mind.
An indispensable cup of energy
Indian expatriate Shrirang Jahagirdar, a health company executive, has been visiting the tea shop for the last 12 years. “Ever since I moved to Dubai from Mumbai, I was craving for a taste, an aroma, an ethos that reminded me of my place, back home. Al Hara does that. I simply have to have at least a cup of their special disco tea, which has a unique blend of ginger, some tea spices such as cinnamon and is boiled to a perfect consistency and blended with milk. Having a sip of this tea just drives away all the day’s fatigue. I have it when starting my day or once while returning home after a day of work. The staff is so good, they treat you with such respect and familiarity that I feel I have come home.”
Al Hara, a labour of love
Started 23 years ago in 1998, by four Thandrapally cousins from Kozhikode, Kerala, India, Hara meaning hot or spicy in Arabic, lives up to its name as it serves not one but a spectrum of 8 different brews, all created by four ingenious cousins.
The South Asian cup of tea is not a slam-dunk affair. Like fast food, quick tea making these days involves bringing the water to a boil in an electric kettle, pouring into a cup, dunking in a tea bag, stirring in the milk and the sugar and that’s your bland, boiled quick assembly line tea. At Al Hara, the secret of their brisk business by the hour lies in the eight flavours of tea.
You can order a variety of teas – the regular masala, sada, suleimani, zafrani and karak, which are available elsewhere too, but in this tea shop acquire a signature twist of their own. Beyond the regular varieties, the shop gets seriously creative offering three other unheard of varieties – biryani, disco and ginger sada on the menu. Each variety is really a studied genre, created with a little dose of love, passion and creativity where condiments are tweaked with varying brewing times, resulting in strong or light tea leaves laced with honey or lemon or ginger that make for different flavours.
The owners have elevated tea brewing to a sacrosanct art. For instance, their biryani tea that is an all-time favourite with many customers is a spicy, non-milky concoction of well-simmered water, steeped with chopped ginger. It carries a hint of cinnamon and pepper in taste, is garnished with fresh mint leaves, and blended with the juice of fresh lemons and a generous dollop of honey. Of course, there is a secret ingredient, which the tea shop does not want to reveal. The organic blend of all these ingredients creates a tea so invigorating that many swear by it. The taste has a sweet, sour and tangy flavour and really has a ‘pick-me-up’ note that drives away fatigue.
In the sada or plain category, one has a choice of ginger sada and plain sada, boiled to a strong potency where the brew almost looks a deep orange with milk. The zafrani with generous amount of aromatic saffron strands swirling in the teacup, can warm the deepest cockles of any heart on a wintry evening.
Walk in to the café at any hour and it’s buzzing with raw energy
Early mornings are the busiest. Every morning during the rush hour Usman Tharandapally Soofy, one of the four brothers who owns the enterprise, walks in to assist his son Afzal Thandrapally and a group of 16 tea servers.
Soofy, who has been a UAE resident for 35 years, talks of the time when he was a tea boy in his father’s shop at the Meena Bazaar Abra station. “As a tea boy, I knew exactly what people liked. I served in that job for seven years before deciding to open Al Hara with my cousin brothers – Abdulla, Mahmood and Ahmed. Together, we worked on the flavours and came up with the varieties. Biryani chai was my brainchild, and it is today one of the most popular ones on our menu. Frankly tea making is what I know and that is why to this day, I love coming to the shop and being part of the daily thrill,” said the old man with a mixture of pride and humility.
As a tea boy, I knew exactly what people liked. I served in that job for seven years before deciding to open Al Hara with my cousin brothers – Abdulla, Mahmood and Ahmed. Together, we worked on the flavours and came up with the varieties. Biryani chai was my brainchild, and it is today one of the most popular ones on our menu. Frankly tea making is what I know and that is why to this day, I love coming to the shop and being part of the daily thrill
– Usman Tharandapally Soofy, co-wonder of Al Hara cafe
As he and his son supervise the preparations in the tiny kitchen, they make sure the place is swept and mopped to perfection. The mint leaves are shred, the ginger peeled and washed along with whole lemons, in preparation for the rush of orders that come in waves. In the meanwhile, the other hands in the kitchen prepare the ingredients for other breakfast items. Their club sandwich is very popular and in the evenings, the falafel is on demand.
Club sandwich and falafel are great accompaniments
Mickey Bhatia and Himanshu Chopra, two friends from Jalandhar, India, are limousine drivers for a car hire service who meet religiously at the tea shop to start their day. “We love the club sandwich and the Disco tea. Just the best breakfast for us to keep going through the day. In the evening we meet here again, for a quick snack when we finish our duty and then return home,” said Bhatia, who came to Dubai seven years ago from Jalandhar in India. “The Al Hara tea is just like what we had in Jalandhar, and their club sandwich is the best in town. In the evening, we also sometimes have a falafel,” said Chopra.
The Al Hara tea is just like what we had in Jalandhar, and their club sandwich is the best in town. In the evening, we also sometimes have a falafel
– Himanshu Chopra, driver for car hire service
The tea servers, Mohammad Rafique and Abdul Rahman from India and Mohammad Zeb from Bangladesh are among the 16 servers who work in shifts. They scurry around in the neighbouring parking lot, taking orders and supplying tea and snacks at double speed.
The art and science of tea brewing
The two tea makers at the cafeteria are passionate about the art and science of tea brewing. They clean and fill up the samovar, which is never taken off the burner; they know the exact temperature their brew needs to be boiled at, the different potency of tea leaves from mild, to moderate to pure thunder. The boys work laboriously brewing tea all day, patiently waiting for the right aroma to waft through. The time when the milk or sugar has to be added, is as though written in stone. The impact of all that concentration is the perfect cup of tea that people throng to Hara for. So popular is the cafeteria that it now has four branches in Karama, informed Soofy.
So the next time, you need that little lift to your system, a perk in your spirits and swing in your step, perhaps you need to drive by Al Hara and take in a cup of one of their invigorating teas.