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There’s No Escaping the Gentrification of Chai

In Pakistan’s most populous city, a wave of upscale chai stands are selling working-class tea culture to a new generation of affluent consumers

On warm evenings in the affluent Karachi neighborhood of Defence, there’s often a steady stream of SUVs pulling off the main drag, Khayaban-e-Bukhari, onto tucked-away side streets. Arriving at a wall painted in the style of either South Asian truck art or kitschy Pakistani film, the occupants get out and hand their keys to a valet. There’s no nightclub or luxurious restaurant on the other side of a velvet rope, though, just a handful of plastic tables and chairs planted on sandy, open-air plots of land. By nightfall, the tables are packed with people ordering chai — the local term for tea, usually prepared with milk — and parathas, and documenting it all on Instagram.

Over the last few years, upscale roadside cafes serving tea mixed with elaborate ingredients like coffee or Cadbury chocolate, along with novelties like pizza parathas, have proliferated throughout Karachi’s wealthier districts. The spaces often resemble beer gardens, lit up by the bright signage of neighboring businesses and imbued with the mood of late nights, caffeine-fueled conversations, and board games. The crowds range from 20-somethings in skinny jeans and T-shirts to families in chauffeured cars. One Friday in January, Humaida Sabir, a 22-year-old student at Baqai Medical University, was having a girls’ night out. “If you just want to have a cup of tea in the open air,” she told me, there’s no place quite like one of these new roadside cafes.

Roadside cafes are hardly unusual in Pakistan; they have long sustained the country’s working class. What’s innovative about this new wave is the packaging: High-end cafes are taking the tea culture of the proletariat, wrapping it in a glossy coating, and using rhetoric about families, modernity, and cleanliness to sell it to the city’s elites and upwardly mobile for sizable profits. Saad Afridi, an airline pilot, ran the upscale, now-closed Season of Smiles, which was known by customers as SOS Tea Bar. “People don’t want to go to restaurants all the time,” he said. “They want to sit outside in the open air.”

In Karachi, the traditional dhaba can be a streetside kitchenette with some seating, a small shop with a few tables, or a stall that has no walls at all. It usually opens at daybreak, unlike its upscale counterpart, and it serves a couple of kinds of sweetened, milky tea for 30 rupees (around 25 cents), plus parathas with eggs or a chickpea curry for around 20 rupees.

The chef at Chai Wala in the Clifton neighborhood of Karachi

The dhabas widely regarded as serving the best tea are called Quetta hotels; a single stall might make over 400 cups of tea in a day. Named for the capital of Balochistan province because they’re largely run by ethnic Pashtuns from the area, Quetta hotels cater to Karachi’s students, shopkeepers, police, and, most of all, to its day laborers — mainly Pashtun men, who suffer from widespread discrimination, often disproportionately targeted by the police.

Inadvertently or not, the blueprint for an upscale dhaba has much in common with the originals: The names are usually a play on local tea and working-class culture, like Chai Wala (“the tea guy/maker”), Chotu Chaiwala (chotu is slang for an underage restaurant worker), or Thelay Wala (pushcart driver); Pashtuns are behind the counter; and the furniture is little more than plastic chairs and tables in an open space. These necessities for dhabas — open space for ventilation, basic furniture to keep costs low — are merely design choices for their upmarket imitators. At Chotu Chaiwala, for instance, the tables and chairs are plastic, but there are also to-go cups. And while dhabas might have a TV, upscale cafes have music and Wi-Fi.

Chai Master is one of the cafes that ushered in the era of chai gentrification. Several years ago, owner Umair Khan noticed that his friends drank tea all day long — often driving up to Cafe Clifton, a classic dhaba, to get frothy, milk-heavy doodh patti to sip in the comfort of their cars — but that nowhere was serving it “in a much more refined way that people actually enjoyed or liked.”

Given the ubiquity of tea in Karachi, Khan was convinced that he could engineer a chai hot spot, even though he’d become a coffee drinker himself while living in the U.S. He devised a menu with a cardamom-and-cinnamon-spiced tea that he named “disco chai,” a Nutella-slathered paratha, and a pizza paratha — which he’d first seen at another cafe — then started working on branding for the venture. As he prepared to open, he began advertising Chai Master on Facebook. Finally, one night in 2012, he placed tables and chairs out on a street that was so deserted you’d hear “dogs bark at night,” thinking he’d just be serving friends and family to start. By the fifth day, he’d run out of tea, milk, chairs, and servers.

“People want to have a clean place,” Khan told me on the phone from Islamabad, where he now lives, explaining his success. Even though his cafes are located on what is little more than a leveled dirt plot, he said that people are willing to pay more money for tea when cafes offer amenities like servers in uniforms, improved hygiene, and mineral water. I asked if he thought that maybe he was appropriating working-class culture. “I didn’t think so, but it worked out that way,” Khan said.

Chai being made in traditional pots

“It’s new, it’s special, it’s built for rich people,” says Juma Khan, who runs a 24-hour cafe in Karachi called Quetta Shinar, about the upscale versions of dhabas. “But it’s the same thing. Just the name is different. They have Kashmiri tea, they add pistachios and almonds to the tea. They have uniforms, we wear regular clothes. That’s the difference.”

On a weekend afternoon in January, Khan sat at the counter of Quetta Shinar in the Clifton district, home to the city’s old-money elite. Opened by his father in 1990, Quetta Shinar serves a wide swath of Karachi society, from the wealthy to the people who work at the stores where the wealthy shop. “The person who comes in the day is a daily wage-earner. He eats quickly and goes to work,” Khan said. “The person who comes at night, he sits and talks. He has friends with him who come from all over. Poor people can’t eat 200-rupee chicken parathas.”

That’s precisely why dhaba owners don’t consider the upstarts rivals, necessarily: The people sipping cardamom-infused chai aren’t their customers, and they probably never will be. Abdul Sattar, who runs a tea stall near Chotu Chaiwala, told me that he doesn’t see a conflict. “There is no difference on the business. Allah gives to everyone,” he said. “Can one person try to take from another person’s share?” At another dhaba in the neighborhood, the customers include the staff from Chotu Chaiwala; the experience that the dhabas offer is eat-and-go-work, while the new cafes are designed for people who aren’t eating to live, but living to eat.

There’s also little of the expected class discord because the new wave of tea cafes hasn’t driven their older peers out of business or priced them out of the area. In a twist, though newer cafes are driving rents up, the working-class cafes are more likely to stick around, because they’re often housed in small shops; it’s the upscale cafes on precarious dirt plots that are in danger of being wiped away by the very development they’re encouraging.

Chai Wala staffers on break during a night shift

Every upscale cafe owner I spoke with suggested that until the new generation of chai establishments came along, there was no “proper place” to hang out and drink tea and sit outside. “Three years ago, there weren’t any families sitting on the road like this,” said Sabir Hussain, whose school-aged son Qamber owns Chotu Chaiwala.

This notion is due in part to a lingering perception that working-class Quetta hotels and dhabas, which are largely frequented by men, are unsafe and unwelcoming to women, even though women aren’t excluded per se. Typically, men dominate public spaces in Pakistan. In upscale neighborhoods in Karachi, at least in my experience, the only women on the streets are often domestic workers, who might stop by a dhaba, but more often than not congregate at bus stops and under the shade of trees outside mansions.

When the local feminist collective Girls at Dhabas started up in 2015, it sought to inspire change by posting photos of women enjoying a cup of tea out in the open. When Chai Wala opened, Anum Rehman Chagani, writing in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, rebutted criticism that the cafe was elitist in part by arguing that there was a dire need for a “family-friendly” dhaba. “How many other dhabas can you really think of where families can go and hang out without feeling unsafe?” she wrote. “Even though I was the only girl sitting outdoors and not in the car when I visited, I didn’t feel uncomfortable or fearful that I would be mugged at any point, which is how I usually feel outside other joints.”

Hussain, who was looking after Chotu Chaiwala while his son was at school, made a similar argument when I visited: “Have you ever sat at a Quetta hotel, tell me?” he asked. I told him I had, and he looked askance before responding defensively. “Maybe they have two seats on the sidewalk. There’d be no ladies sitting there. Who’s sitting there? Driver. Conductor. Laborer. Mechanic. You’re not going to sit with them. We have families here. Good, educated people.”

Hussain’s spiel underscores that people want their fellow diners to be from the same social circuit, but it’s not entirely true that Karachi’s social classes don’t intersect over food. Karachi has a well-established culture of open-air dining, from informal “food streets” populated with restaurants to breakfast places that serve a traditional meal of fried puris with chickpea and potato curries and a semolina halwa. Richer people might prefer eating in their cars or getting takeout, but one does see them out on the street. Dhabas that offer breakfast — particularly in middle-class neighborhoods — put out tables where families and groups of students, including from the city’s elite schools, dine outdoors. Someone has always been brewing tea out on the roadside; it’s just that when it’s for the working class, it goes undocumented on Instagram.

Chai being poured through a sieve at Chai Wala

The evolution of tea culture is now coming full circle: Regular dhabas in richer neighborhoods are adding a novelty paratha or two, presumably to attract wealthier customers. It doesn’t always work. At Quetta Shinar, Juma Khan tried putting Kashmiri tea — a pink-hued drink that includes milk, sugar, and salt — on the menu, but he didn’t have enough demand to cover the cost. Saad Afridi, whose SOS Tea Bar was opposite a mall, said that it offered a moderately priced menu during the day for mall employees, and another at night when its customers included families that were shopping — but Afridi still ended up closing down the cafe.

Even though the initial frenzy over the cafes has settled down somewhat since 2012, customers still want the experience they offer. Tea, as one shopkeeper put it, is just an excuse to hang out. And in Karachi, at its dhabas and cafes, people are bound by the core elements of the same experience: the steaming cups of chai, drunk under the same muggy sky, often on the same street. What they’re divided by isn’t just the Wi-Fi or the phone chargers, but class.

The split-screen of tea culture is almost straight out of an episode of the Pakistani comedy series Alif Noon, which ran from 1965 to 1982 and was centered around a conniving genius, Allan, and his unwitting accomplice with a heart of gold, Nanha. The show is set in a pawn shop, and a well-dressed customer wanders through the store (which is filled with knockoffs) looking for an “antique,” only to set his sights on a teapot.

“Where is this from?” he asks, as the innocent Nanha laughs hysterically and splutters: “Canteen.”

Allan struggles to keep a straight face as he expounds on its provenance. “Tsk, at least tell the name of the country properly,” he scolds his partner. “This is from Canton ... it’s about 3,500 years old.” The customer walks out gingerly holding his purchase as the protagonists collapse with laughter, and wonder how the canteen manager will react when he finds out his teapot’s missing. Decades later, the gag’s finally come to life.

Saba Imtiaz is a freelance journalist and author who makes decent chai.
Ali Khurshid is a photographer based in Karachi.
Fact checked by Pearly Huang
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter