A look at the very, very Bahraini tradition of the tea shop
Time Out Bahrain staff
Last month we concentrated on the very British institution of afternoon tea but, here in Bahrain, you are far more likely to find the locals (and many ex-pats) indulging in their own tea tradition of chai or karak.
With its origins in India, karak made its way to the Middle East with the establishment of trade routes and it very quickly became a way of life.
One that the owner is keen to rejuvenate with his newly-opened Chai Café, opposite Bahrain Mall in Seef.
Serving a whole range of teas, whether the strong, sweet Arabic version, green tea, saffron tea or the true milky karak, prepared with tonnes of sugar and condensed milk, much loved by the Asian community, you will find it here.
But you’ll also find a place that looks nothing like the traditional chai shop, spotlessly clean with state-of-the art, stainless steel utensils and machines and the best of ingredients brought in from around the world.
However, that’s where the modernisation stops. The store manager and his assistant are still there well before opening time at 6.30am to get the chai brewing for at least half an hour to make sure it has that deliciously strong flavour.
The owner explains: “I wanted to bring back the chai shops I was used to as a youngster growing up in Bahrain – if you like, it’s a modern concept on a traditional chai café.
“So here you will find traditional tea, though most of our customers prefer it either black or with fresh milk rather than the condensed milk. The tea is imported from India and we use only bottled water to make sure we get the right taste.
“We also sell bagels with good cheese and chickpeas, which is one of the traditional things you would find to eat in an old tea shop (prepared with chillis, they really are very tasty) and the old-style sandwiches that I loved from my childhood such as OK chips or Oman chips with hot sauce and a slice of tomato – it might not sound that great but, trust me, they’re really popular with people who remember these things.”
And there’s also the two types of balaleet – vermicelli served either with egg at breakfast time or with lots of sugar in the evening – and various other traditional Bahraini deserts.
The main business at Chai Café is delivery, based, says the owner, on the chai wallah of old. But you can also settle down inside the shop where you’ll find your tea served in traditional glasses or hand-painted Bahraini ceramic ware.
And with the start of Ramadan, the owner plans to open the eat-in café section, since Chai Café has proved so popular he’s expanded into the premises nextdoor. Chai Café is open daily from 6.30am-11pm, Friday 4pm-midnight. (17 001 727).
Back in time
If you want a taste of the old Bahraini tea shop, head to Ahmed Abdul Rahim’s Traditional Coffee Shop (yes it’s called a coffee shop but we’re thinking lost in translation), just down from the Delmon Hotel close to Gold City.
For our money, you really won’t find a more authentic experience. Here, old men while away the hours with countless cups of hot sweet tea and plates of traditional food such as beans and chickpeas, as they put the world to rights. It’s open 24 hours a day and, while it’s always busy, the best time to sample the atmosphere is in the early evening when the tables and benches on the pavement outside fill up and the conversation really gets going.
Today’s tea shop
Nestled in the busy heart of Um Al Hassam, and with branches across the island, is the modern version of the tea shop – Royal Karak or Malik Karak as it’s known. Open 20 hours a day, you can spot it by the almost-constant traffic jam outside as customers pull up in their cars and wait for Ashiq, Latheef and Thameem to run out and serve them. From early morning manual workers and business people alike pass by for paper cups of hot sweet tea made almost half and half with Rainbow condensed milk. But the boys will tell you the thing you really must sample is the Royal karak. Don’t bother asking what’s in it, they won’t divulge the recipe but we can tell you, it tastes like a piping hot cup of custard. A slightly odd thing to find in a tea shop but pleasant nonetheless. Open daily 5am-1am – there’s no phone, just turn up and honk your horn.