By Abid Hussain
What sets apart Café Pyala, a seemingly nondescript, yet fascinating café situated near Sakhi Hasan Chowrangi, from other cafés in the city are the the cups, or Pyalas, which are used to serve the rather addictive tea brewed at the café.
The six-inches-wide Pyalas are the identity of the café, with Jammurrad Khan, one of the co-owners of the café, claiming that their business is premised on the sale of tea. “We serve our first cup of tea around Fajar prayers,” Khan said. “Labourers and drivers are among our first customers, who wake up before dawn to have a cup of tea before heading to their respective destinations. Thereafter, the rush continues as office-goers stop by to have a quick breakfast and leave,” he continued, while handling the cash counter.
The owner’s account is corroborated by many local tea connoisseurs, who claim that no amount of Earl Greys or even the finest tea from Cyelon can ever compare with the wow factor and taste provided by the Café Pyala’s special ‘Doodh Patti Chai’, which is served along with ‘fried Paratha’.
Café Pyala started off in 1988 as a small family business for Khan, his brothers and nephews. For Jammurrad Khan and his brothers, Café Pyala is their baby, and the result of their collective efforts to make a comfortable life for themselves in Karachi.Catering primarily to labourers, drivers and other low-income groups, the café now attracts many from the more fortunate areas of the city. The café’s ‘Doodh Patti Chai’ and special ‘Fried Paratha’ are their trademarks.
When asked about the secret ingredient of these two, Khan was adamant there is no special formula. “We just use Desi Ghee (clarified butter) and Atta (flour) to make the Paratha. There is nothing else there. The only different thing we do is to fry to make it crispy.” As for the tea, Khan again emphasised there was no secret recipe which makes it so addictive. “It is just simple tea that you find anywhere in the market. There is nothing particular about it except the fact that we only use buffalo milk. Tetra-Pak milk does not have same quality at all nor do any of those milk powders or tea whiteners.”
When asked about accusation of using substandard products to make their dishes, Khan vehemently denied any such charges. “We have been in the business for over 20 years, and we never had anybody coming up to us and complaining about a sub-standard meal or anyone who suffered food poisoning.” This is quite a claim, considering the fact that the restaurant caters to countless number of people in a day who throng the restaurant at any given time.
Aside from the tea and Paratha, the café also serves six different main course items such as ‘Daal Fry’, ‘Qeema Fry’, ‘mixed vegetables’ among others. They also have three kinds of egg dishes, including the crowd favourite ‘Anda Ghotala’, made with scrambled egg and minced tomatoes.
When asked about inflation and its affect on the business, Khan said the restaurant was indeed hampered somewhat due to the rising price but maintained that over the last ten years, they increased the rates for their tea and paratha by only Rs 5 each.
Being situated at a politically sensitive area of Karachi, it was pertinent to ask if the café ever had any problems from the authorities or any political party. However, Jammurrad Khan dispelled any such notions and said they never faced any problem and the restaurant had a very safe environment. He did concede that over the time there have been small raids by the police to search for any hiding dacoits and criminals but never once they found anybody. He also refuted the notion that the café was built on encroached property. “We never had any problem with authorities about the structure. The only time we had a small argument was when the government wanted to expand the road and they asked us to reduce our boundary wall and sitting area, which we complied with. If there were concerns about legality of the structure, they would have struck down the café itself.”
The restaurant remains operational almost throughout the day and is temporarily closed at around midnight only for cleaning and refreshing the kitchen. Infact, a night-time visit to Café Pyala entails an experience of its own when restaurant is full; people are sipping tea outside on the pavement while a number of masseurs roam around looking to provide their services.
For a small eatery place with a humble beginning, Café Pyala has certainly made a mark over the last two decades. Not quite the hang out of intellectuals and revolutionaries who used to gather at Pak Tea House in Lahore, but definitely retaining an individual flavor and culture of its own, making it one of Karachi’s identity and a famous landmark.
Ofcourse, it is just a coincidence to have a not-so-specially brewed tea which thousands of Karachiites swear by daily, eaten along with the divinely crispy and oily Paratha.