One post and many meals ago, le chef at My Mouth is Full commented that I should try the famous Disco Tea. Before long, an insatiable curiosity to learn more about Disco Tea – what, where, how, why...THE SUSPENSE IS KILLING ME. – had cannibalized my entire comment stream and twitter feed.
I took it upon my own two shoulders to resolve the mystery around Disco Tea, a name that I vaguely remembered from my klutzy childhood days in Dubai. I asked mom, the veteran of all things old Dubai. No luck. I googled furiously and found this article about the gay origins of Disco Tea nomenclature (which led to an interesting morning of watching youtube videos with shiny spandex clad men)…but no clear reference to a location. No luck. I walked around Karama asking random cashiers if they would point the way to the Disco Tea of Oz. No luck...and getaLIFEwoman stares.
I finally resorted to a totally counter-intuitive and out-of-the-box approach…and asked le chef who tipped over Pandora's Disco Teacup in the first place.
Armed with approximate directions, I marched into the alleys of Meena Bazaar on Wednesday morning. Right around 9.30am. Right after shutters had been rolled up and jewellery shops and textile shops and spice shops and littleknickknack shops were yawning awake. Right when every Meena Bazaar shop assistant needed his morning cup of chai.
It was like an old MacDonald's farm of steaming styrofoam tea cups out there. Practically every second person was sporting a cup, each of them ponderously sipping over random conversations – who knows what they were talking about…the price of gold, or maybe life after retirement, or annoyed grunts about The Wife…or why any woman would throw a second glance at that slimy green glittering mannequin in the store across the street. Will someone please help that shopkeeper help himself and take it down already?! Whatever they were talking about, that ubiquitous styrofoam cup was there with them, giving them the fuel they needed to prep for a long day of haggling once the storm of women hit the bazaar.
Le chef’s directions were spot on. I asked around for Vashu Matching Centre, and was pointed down a barely-existent side street with a sizeable box proudly boasting its presence: Palace Cafeteria. This was The One. AND it had the tell-tale sign of a menu declaring DISCO TEA and DISCO SANDWITH plastered on the front door.
I was there at last. The moment was one of such overwhelming accomplishment – notably by 9.45am in the morning, before most mortals of my caliber had started their day – that I felt like erecting an Armstrong-like flag by the door to declare: The Frying Pan has been Here.
But I was out of flags that morning.
My order flew off my tongue even before I had colonized a table: ek Disco Tea, ek Disco Sandwich please. And then I nestled down into a chair, observing the contents of the Palace: two tables, one cash register and an open, unexpectedly neat and well-structured kitchen. And a notable mention to the little window carved out into the kitchen wall, should someone desire a drive-by tea run without undertaking 8 more strenuous steps to the front door.
Every few minutes, an army of tea cups would be filled, transferred to a tray, lidded with an old file, and then stacked with six inch wide sandwiches wrapped in baking paper. The ‘disco parcel’ would then fly out the door to whichever neighbourhood shop had placed the order, only to be forgotten a short while later when the next large order came through.
Now the moment we’ve all been waiting for…
....THE DISCO TEA.
Looked like regular chai. Smelled like regular chai. And sure as hell tasted like regular chai. Undoubtedly good karak chai. Not extraordinary, not the best I’ve had, but definitely worthy of being the juice that Meena Bazaar runs on. BUT, let's be clear, this just wasn’t the sort of rocking tea that you’d expect from anything with a touch of disco. It was indistinguishable from the chai that you’d pour from the hundreds of yellow antique kettles all over Malabari cafeterias in town, with cardamom (spot on, @jasetwit), no masala (that was masala chai, for 25 fils extra), boiled down to a rich, heavily sugared brew with a far more generous trickle of Rainbow milk than the one in the homemade chai I’m sipping as I write this post. If you ask Ismail why it’s called Disco, the middle-aged owner will shrug his shoulders and tell you that it’s merely the name people had given it when the doors to the Palace were flung open around 30 years ago. And every one of the approximately 500 teacups leaving the Palace each day has been christened with the same ‘hip’ name ever since.
My personal theory is that Ismail or one of his employees, in a moment of blazing Bollywood inspiration, named the Tea and Sandwich after a popular movie song whose release may have coincided with the Palace menu design.
While the Disco Tea may not have been anything to boogy about, the Disco Sandwich was. Not an all out break dance or waacking or anything wild, but definitely a little jiggywithit. It was a simple egg omelet folded up in a buttered bun that had been grilled into submission inside a Panini press.
But lest this oversimplify the situation, let me tell you that you can have a good, well-executed sandwich. You can also have a poorly-made sandwich. And then you can have the obnoxious sandwich where you felt like you had to chew through Alaska to get to the eggy insides or where the bread had been so overgreased and overmayo’ed that it made your stomach violently sputter from the aftermath of the grease spill. Or one that had been so overloaded and inconveniently uncut down the middle that it made you look like like an ill-mannered blubbering mess with carrots and mayo spilling out just as you’d managed to cram the massive beef patty into your mouth in front of all your co-dining spectators.
Oh look at that fool. She can’t even eat a sandwich.
No really. This was a good, no-fuss sandwich. Perfect ratio of tender bun thickness to omelet folds. Commendable grill marks embossed by the Panini press. Right-sized slice of tomato and blob of ketchup, with the right amount of juicy trickle across the surface area of the sandwich. Comforting level of cheese meltiness, neither too stiff nor too watery. Precise stroke of butter that would dissolve into a luxurious whiff at the back of your tongue, without moisturizing your fingers with that dreaded slippery sheen. Thoughtfully sliced into four, graspable quarters.
I declare this to be a good sandwich. Not an earth-shattering one. Not once inducing sandwich fireworks, but just simple sandwich zen. A solid, well-composed 30-year old breakfast sandwich that could easily become, and has become, a daily staple for many of the Meena Bazaar clan.
I wasn’t alone in my peaceful reflection on what made this sandwich work. A well-spoken lady in pardah had popped her head in minutes after I’d placed my order, and ordered a Disco Sandwich with Cheese. She was a regular. WomanwithCheese and her friend eventually settled into the second of two tables in front of me, and pondered over how it didn't matter that Palace wasn't particularly high on ambiance. All that mattered was that this was the place that served a solid sandwich and chai. [I silently agreed.] A few bites into her sandwich, WomanwithCheese heaved a sigh of relief that all elements of the sandwich were in harmony, just as she’d have expected from her past shopping trips to Meena Bazaar. [Again, I silently agreed.] And then WomanwithCheese presumptuously suggested the concept of wheat buns to Ismail, because white bread is sooo unhealthy. I stood up tall and vehemently revolted [...in my daydream. In reality, I silently disagreed.] The key is to eat in moderation – not screw with the sacred. And I'm positive that Ismail, after his thirty or so years of watching that sandwich being made on auto replay, and I, in my virgin experience with Disco sandwich, were connected in spirit on that thought.
By the time I left the Palace, all the shop owners and assistants had chucked the styrofoam, scurried back into their shops and taken their positions behind the counter. Chai cups were still occasionally making an entrance, but after 10am, chai was being used as hospitable bait to the incoming lady shoppers who were going to spend their next hour haggling over that green vixen sari that really should have been buried in some dark desert hole over an hour ago.
Not all the chai cups were from Palace – there are a ton of competitors and Disco Tea rip-offs around. In fact, Al Hara in Karama has got a couple of online mentions for their Disco Tea and Sandwich too. Don't ask me who started the craze, Palace, Hara, or whichever other cafeteria. I doubt I could squeeze a confession out of the ones that are impostors, and even if I did, I'm not sure what we'd get out of it except for an over-hyped, The One & Only Original Disco Tea. It just doesn't take long for an enterprising Indian to re-engineer a cup of Rainbow-milked cardamom tea. Cause honestly, that's ALL Disco Tea is, cardamom milk tea with a fancy name to make the chai from one small cafeteria feel like it's a notch above the rest. Plain and simple Marketing 101, as practiced by an enterprising Keralite three decades ago. A fancy name that would get the hype-hungry masses (myself included) cramming through the door and elbowing each other and falling over themselves to get a drop of this sensational drink [oh wait, was that just a Kim Kardashian thing?] But having sipped my cuppa, I can safely say that no smoke machines will go off when that Disco Tea courses down your throat. If you're looking for something to make you feel like the rockstar that you know you are, you're better off staying at home and turning up the radio.
(PS. Special thanks to le chef at My Mouth is Full for introducing me to the Palace!)
Behind Madhoor Supermarket, Meena Bazaar