Disco chai - dubai
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The Dirty Truth Behind Disco Tea.

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.

LUCK.

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…

...this is…

....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!)

Palace Cafeteria
Behind Madhoor Supermarket, Meena Bazaar





22 Comments

  1. Brigitte

    Well now we know. Thanks for easing the suspense. :)

  2. ninu

    oh.
    i was ATLEAST hoping for some sparkly pink edible glitter…with a name like that…. =/ or maybe a disco in my mouth? spices et all…hmmm…
    oh well.. im sure there s a disco tea out there thats named some humdrum name like " tea" that ll blow ur mind and prolly make you think – now THIS is disco tea…
    Until that day , i wait.

  3. i love the tapari chai anyday over the ones you get at Baristas. Though not a regular tea-coffee drinker, I reserve my tea drinking for some special Tapari occasions.
    The descriptions is so evocative and spot on. I could see you doing what you were doing. I am also happy that you gave an impartial feedback.

  4. That sandwich is oozing with what looks like a mouthful of goodness, I want to try it for sure…. I have to say the way you wrote your post made me feel every emotion of desperate need to know what Disc tea is :)) nice post totally enjoyed it …

    • InaFryingPan

      @Brigette – …if only, now there is renewed suspense. Disco tea at Al Hara has received some serious recommendations, so maybe, there is still hope for a shimmering diva-like Disco tea.

      @ninu – I know, I feel like the wet duck in this anticlimactic flop story. A little bit of pink glitter could’ve saved the situation…but I get the feeling that’s not top priority for the Palace. Till the day I find the real chai rockstar creation…

      @Sliceofmylyfe – oh hell yeah. Don’t even get me started about the chains that attempt to serve chai. I would wish they’d call it something else to save the poor drink the humiliation…like DontGetYourHopesUp SuperWeakfortheSensitiveTummy Tea.

      @Dima’s Kitchen – thanks for the positive words, I’m so glad that the writing made up for the lack of an explosive chai find! But I would go back for that sandwich for sure. FOR SURE.

  5. Love this post Arva…though any day I would prefer my masala chai, I am cursing myself to have missed accompanying you on this disco adventure. Next time you come to meena bazar u will surely have a partner in foodie crime.

  6. Ha! So glad you posted this. I was beyond curious…thought it was the type of tea used, or some strange preparation that would yield latte-like foam on top. Nope. Just plain ol cardamom milk tea. The sandwich – now I will have to try that at home! You are awesome – love your writing and your pics :)

  7. saleem

    Explore and keep exploring and you come accross history – guess 30 years ago, we did not have as many joints to serve us, and the Chai or sandwiches taste the same as they did then. I am sure sandwiches taste fresh and the juice is not like the commercials McDonalds.

  8. farwin

    I think we have our disco tea in Al Hara at Karama.For me,it tastes like a cross between masala chai and cardomom chai.They have notched up the flavor by adding crushed cardomom to the tea which can seen at tho bottom.The sugar and milk content is high though.It’s mild compared to the throat burning masala chai I had at Bombay Bites.And way lot better than the regular chai which can be easily passed on as super hot murky water.Too bad this disco didn’t live up to your expectations.
    But that Disco Sandwich is definite must try..

    • InaFryingPan

      @Raji – Worry not my friend, I’m always slinking around Meena Bazaar, so you shall be dragged out with me soon. A Koki maybe…? ;)

      @Brenda – I think WE, FoodiesUnited, need to recreate a shimmering magical musical Disco Tea that revolutionizes the chai industry FOREVA. And you my friend, with your culinary talent, are perfect to do that. I shall await an inspired post… ;)
      …and thank you for the kind words, and likewise, mideats.com is the guru to my ignorant perpetually food-coma’ed brain.

      @saleem – ack. The disco tea may not have been mindblowing dad, but can we please not bring the M-word into this?!

      @farwin – TEA CONNOISSEUR! Lady, with that kind of breakdown, you have just made it to my VictimsWhoIMustConvincetoAccompanyMeonChaiTastings list. I need to go to Al Hara with you!

  9. If only there was a spangled poster of Mithun somewhere to add to the atmosphere… :D

    Sandwich looks good!

  10. nadia

    I heard from some aunty last year that they add a small amount of coffee into these disco chai. She said it’s what makes these chai taste different. But I guess that’s just a rumor because you mentioned that this tasted like regular chai.

  11. really enjoyed that, very interesting x

    • InaFryingPan

      @Devina Divecha – …or if the servers and chef were dressed up as Mithun!!! How cool would that be?!
      …actually, maybe not. scratch that thought.

      @nadia – na-uh…don’t think there’s any coffee in there. Though the question is, where does Aunty ji get her disco tea from? :)

      @Debbie – thanks hun, love your writing too!

  12. lol@Mithun dressups for serving disco tea. That really would be something.
    I really enjoyed reading this Arva. Chai rules, disco or not!

    • InaFryingPan

      @Shumaila – Thanks hun. And right on, Chai is the wonder drink (that transforms me from a groggy mole into something closer to a human form every morning. without it, I would just be…a groggy mole.)

  13. Jeffrey Locke

    Great reading about the disco tea., but I am a coffee drinker.
    Any tips on some great madras coffee, filter coffee or the famous metre coffee.
    Cheers
    Jeff

    • InaFryingPan

      @Jeffrey – Tried any of the South Indian restaurants in Karama, like Saravana Bhavan or Calicut Paragon or Woodlands? I’m sure these places have the typical South Indian filter coffee…I’m a sucker for it too, love the steaming-pouring action from cup to saucer.

  14. Nikhi Bhatia

    I first ate at Palace cafeteria when I was a kid (that would be 20 years ago). My dad introduced me to their omlette sandiwch (the regular one and NOT the disco sandwich) and I have been hooked since. The most amazing bit is how they have maintained that consistent, great taste over the years. I personally think their regular sandwich (with extra chilli :)) is much better than the disco sandwich (too much ketchup). Do try it when you get the chance.
    Cheers
    Nikhil

    • InaFryingPan

      @Nikhi Bhatia – wow, we have a 20 year Palace veteran in our midst! I’m going to have to try the regular sandwich, but too much chilli has been known to make a Crying Pan out of me :(

  15. Your search for the truth behind the disco tea has more "flavour", for me, than the actual tea may possess. Excellent piece of investigative food reporting! :)

    • InaFryingPan

      @Kenny Mah – I’m on top of the world! Love your writing, and am flattered to hear from you – thank you!

One Trackback

  1. By Machboos, Dosa, and Disco Tea. Plotted on the Oversimplified Food Experience Graph. | I live in a Frying Pan. 8 Mar ’12 at 7:46 am

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