To beat the average 107-degree heat in Dubai these days, as well as the throngs that flock to the city for wild shopping sprees, I left home early morning to take the metro to Ibn Battuta Mall (the world’s largest themed mall, if you can imagine such a thing). I arrived well before the retail shops opened, and thought to do some work at a café while I waited. Dubai boasts many of the western world’s best-known chains, like the US Starbucks and Canada’s Tim Horton’s and the French Paul, as well as southeast and west Asian restaurants and fast food conglomerates. But I wasn’t in the mood for the bustle of the food court or a $30 breakfast. Enter: Project Chaiwala.
Chai, especially a version known as karak, has history in UAE, whose breathtaking urban metropolises were built with engineering and other expertise from India and Pakistan after oil was discovered in this previously sleepy, sandy destination. Today, emigrants from west Asia make up the largest share of the population in UAE (including Emiratis!) and their culinary influence continues. “From youngsters showing off their cars as they sip the tea on a night out to lorry drivers for whom a cup of karak is a 4am pick-me-up, the drink has become ingrained in UAE culture…The popular drink spans all cultures and is available almost everywhere,” including weddings, offices, or any hospitable locale.
Project Chaiwala is a homegrown phenomenon, a cafe that serves up a variety of specialty chai options prepared true to original methods, and taking up to two hours per batch to prepare. The company takes care to source its tea ethically and sustainably, and finds customers at six locations in UAE. I can attest that the Project Chaiwala karak tastes like liquid butterscotch, but I’m partial to the Zaffrani chai with infused saffron.
After that introduction, I’m not here to talk about the chai. I’m here to post about Project Chaiwala’s awesome food.
In December 2021, taking in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue arts district with family, we scooted into an outdoor picnic table to enjoy tea and various small dishes at the Project Chaiwala hosted inside Cinema Akil, a local indie movie theatre. That was my first time getting up close and personal with smashmosas, the cafe’s take on traditional samosas. I’m almost sure that I had the Medi smashmosa, featuring wild za’atar, fried eggplant, toasted pine nuts, feta, pomegranate molasses and mint chutney. On the other hand, I most certainly took bites of someone’s (or ate all to myself) Desi smashmosa, with sweet potato, beetroot, carrots, and tamarind-mint chutney. If you’re salivating, you’ve got it right. They were absolutely amazing.
Back at Ibn Battuta Mall last week, I went for a breakfast egg paratha to slurp down while typing rabidly at my laptop. In truth, I had to set the laptop aside to focus on another fantastic dish. The scrambled egg paratha wrap included sauteed mushrooms, roasted peppers, Emmenthal, avocado, Sriracha, and mayo. Not for the faint of heart, but Project Chai has an admirable approach: the small portions enable post-indulgent mobility. And the caffeine kick from the Masala chai keeps you moving!