Chai in Pakistan: Culture, Dependance and Opportunity

With various flavors, unique culture and rich history, chai in Pakistan occupy an important place.

Chai in Pakistan: Culture, Dependance and Opportunity
Chai in Pakistan: Culture, Dependance and Opportunity
Ayela Sarshar
October 6, 2023

With its mouthwatering blend of flavours, unique culture and rich history, chai in Pakistan occupies an important place in the hearts of its people. What if I told you that you can take this treasured tradition a step further by cultivating your own tea leaves right in your own backyard? In this blog, we'll explore the art of importance of chai in Pakistan’s culture and the possibility of growing tea in your own backyard, the complexities of making a wonderful cup of Pakistani chai, and the global rebirth of homegrown tea production.

Chai being poured into cups at a dhaba.

Chai in Pakistani Culture

Chai is a cultural necessity for Pakistanis, representing the essence of their traditions and values. It represents warmth, hospitality, and togetherness, and it serves as a daily ritual that connects families and communities. Sharing chai creates social relationships, with lively talks and treasured memories taking place over numerous cups. A colonial lineage passed on from the British - chai in Pakistan has become a national pastime. Most households in the country have a dedicated timeframe between 5 to 7 pm where chai/biscuits and some refreshments are taken as the day transitions into night. Dinner is then shelved to a later time, often after half past 8.

Gatherings, celebrations, and even business meetings in Pakistan are not complete without a steaming cup of chai. It's a ubiquitous presence that cuts across socioeconomic classes and brings people from all walks of life together. According to a 2020 research, Pakistan is among the top five tea users in the world, with an annual tea consumption of over 200,000 metric tonnes, reflecting the country's significant cultural and societal significance of chai. 

Dhabas (tea stalls) are import social gathering places that have gained significance and have mushroomed across urban areas in Pakistan. Initially a tea shop on the outskirts of a city or on busy transport routes, dhabas were a place of respite, refreshment and common meeting place for weary travellers, transporters and nearby residents. The credit for this unique eating joint goes to the truck drivers who plied their trade along the Grand Trunk Road in pre-partition days. Driving from Peshawar to Calcutta would be hard work and they needed quick, hot food. To meet their needs a string of food places sprung up. Since the drivers were mostly Sikhs the food was hardy Punjabi fare such as aloo parathas, daal makhni and lassi. The etymology of dhaba is unclear though some say it is derived from the word dabba or tiffin-box. By definition it was a simple establishment that catered to the working classes.

After 1947, truckers in Pakistan still ate on the highway but instead of daal makhni and other Punjabi dishes they moved to food preferred by their main clientele, Pakhtuns, who now dominated the intercity transport industry. The same people had a big impact on the tea places in Karachi. After Partition it had a host of tea restaurants but what we would consider a dhaba-like place came with the coming of Pakhtuns after Gen Ayub Khan’s coup in 1958. These entrepreneurial people set up tea places in the city which primarily served plain parathas, eggs and doodh patti. Thus, the familiar anda-paratha dhaba aka “Quetta” hotels, a cousin of the original Punjabi dhaba, was born and stayed true to its 1960s roots until it moved up the social ladder a few years back.

It started back in the 1990s with Café Clifton. Being in an affluent part of Karachi, it had a clientele who were aware of the charms of hot flaky parathas and fragrant doodh patti but would rather sit in the comfort of their cars than mix with regular working class individuals. Recently a counter-culture revolution of sorts took place. Chai dhabas had generally been a male preserve but now females starting frequenting them in an effort of reclaiming public spaces for their gender. Female activism and gastronomic adventures opened up new vistas for entrepreneurs, many of them fairly young, who opened fancy tea places and called them dhabas. Regarding their popularity Aized Suharwardy, co-founder of Chai Wala said, “We are a nation of chai drinkers. It makes sense that chai cafes would be just as popular, if not more, as all the coffee cafes we have in the city.”

The market dictates what gets sold and at what price. If people are happy to pay for food generally available at a fifth of the price there, then why shouldn’t a smart entrepreneur relieve them of their money? Besides there are variations of traditional dhaba food — parathas stuffed with cheese or chocolate that create a new experience. In the last decade, they have turned into an urban trend, with youngsters utilizing the outside spaces as a meeting place for friends, family and casual hang-out spots. The tea culture here is evident with various varieties being served. Chai, green tea, Kashmiri tea, Ginger tea and other forms can be found here in ample measure. Those that do not want a full cup, can order a ‘cut’, a half cup of chai - just the right amount to sustain yourself! Dhabas are often open round the clock and offer breakfast, chai and other light bites - amongst conversation, community and a gathering place.

A upscale dhaba on Khayaban-e-Bukhari in Defence, Karachi.

The Homegrown Tea Journey

Homegrown produce and sustainable agricultural practices have increased significantly in Pakistan. According to the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC), there has been a 30% growth in home garden installations over the last 5 years in response to urbanisation and the need for local products. The country's varied temperature, ranging from temperate zones in the north to tropical areas in the South, along with beneficial soils, make it an ideal location for tea cultivation. According to the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), increased knowledge of sustainability has resulted in a 40% increase in the adoption of sustainable farming practices among small tea producers in Pakistan. This trend reflects a larger trend towards self-sufficiency and environmentally conscientious decisions.

Pakistan's diverse climate and soil conditions make it an ideal place for tea cultivation. Regions like the northern areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Azad Jammu and Kashmir have gained recognition for their tea-growing potential. Given the potential to utilize this land for tea cultivation, it will reduce pressure on dollar-heavy import dependency. 

Import Independence

Pakistan is heavily reliant on tea imports each year, with roughly 225,000 metric tonnes being carried in. The vast bulk of these imports come from Sri Lanka, Kenya, and India. This reliance on foreign sources has a negative impact on the country's self-sufficiency and offers considerable economic issues. In terms of economic impact, Pakistan spends an estimated $600 million to $700 million per year on tea imports alone, putting significant strain on foreign exchange reserves. Furthermore, fluctuating worldwide tea prices might cause fluctuations in import costs, affecting the country's balance of payments. To address these challenges and promote self-sufficiency, homegrown tea cultivation in Pakistan represents a sustainable solution that not only reduces the reliance on imports but also contributes to the nation's agricultural and economic resilience. There have been conserted efforts by the government to increase tea cultivation so that the dependence on tea imports can be reduced.

Tea leaves in the field.

Brewing the Perfect Chai: Tea Processing Steps

Tea processing is a fascinating journey that transforms freshly plucked tea leaves into the aromatic brew we love. It involves several essential steps, each contributing to the development of flavor and aroma. The ideal tea plant kinds are essential for successful home growing in Pakistan. The varieties Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica (tea plant) are climate-adapted varieties that allow you to lessen your dependency on imported tea. After you've picked your tea plants, it's critical to put them in well-draining soil with partial sunlight and enough space to thrive. Regular pruning and meticulous maintenance are essential for good growth. Harvesting mature tea leaves, normally after three years of development, supplies you with fresh leaves.

  • Withering: This initial step allows tea leaves to gently wilt, a process that enhances their flavor. During withering, the leaves lose moisture, becoming more pliable and preparing them for the subsequent stages.
  • Rolling: After withering, the leaves are carefully rolled, which serves to shape them and release essential oils. This process is critical for the development of the tea's characteristic aroma and taste.
  • Oxidation: Tea leaves are exposed to controlled levels of air, initiating oxidation. This step is pivotal in flavor development, as it allows the tea to develop the nuanced flavors and colors that distinguish different types of tea.
  • Firing: Finally, to halt the oxidation process and preserve the unique taste of the leaves, the tea undergoes firing. This step involves subjecting the leaves to heat, which can vary depending on the type of tea being produced.

Here's a detailed recipe to savor the authentic flavors:


  • 1 tablespoon of homegrown tea leaves
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 cup of milk
  • 3-4 green cardamom pods, crushed
  • 2-3 cloves
  • 1 small cinnamon stick
  • 1 small piece of fresh ginger, grated
  • Sugar to taste


Brewing process of homemade tea.
  • In  a saucepan, combine the water and milk and bring them to a gentle boil.
  • Add the tea leaves, crushed cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon stick, and grated ginger - to the boiling liquid.
  • Reduce the heat to low, allowing the mixture to simmer for about 5-7 minutes. This simmering period ensures that all the flavors infuse into the brew.
  • Sweeten your chai with sugar to your desired level of sweetness, stirring until it dissolves completely.
  • Strain the chai into your favorite cup or mug, and enjoy the aromatic, flavorful goodness of your homemade Pakistani chai.

This recipe not only celebrates the art of tea processing but also highlights the satisfaction of crafting your own chai from homegrown tea leaves. 

Homegrown tea offers numerous advantages, including a reduced carbon footprint due to the elimination of long-distance transportation. Studies have shown that homegrown tea leaves possess higher antioxidant levels, resulting in a healthier and fresher tea experience. Cultivating tea at home also contributes to sustainability by reducing packaging waste. Localizing tea cultivation can also substantially reduce carbon emissions linked to long-distance transportation. This move towards self-sufficiency can help Pakistan lower its carbon footprint while achieving import independence.

Climate Variability and Pest Management

Tea cultivation, while rewarding, does come with its share of challenges, especially in regions like Pakistan, where weather patterns can be unpredictable, and pests can pose significant threats.

  • Weather Variability: Pakistan's diverse climate can be both a boon and a challenge for tea growers. Unpredictable weather patterns, including sudden temperature fluctuations and unseasonal rainfall, can affect tea plants' growth and health. To mitigate these challenges, it's essential to choose tea plant varieties that are resilient and adaptable to the local climate. Additionally, implementing protective measures such as shade nets or row covers can help shield the tea bushes from extreme weather conditions. Regular monitoring of weather forecasts and adjusting cultivation practices accordingly can also aid in safeguarding your tea plants.
  • Pest Management: Pest infestations can be a significant concern for tea cultivation. Common tea pests include aphids, mites, and tea mosquito bugs, which can damage the leaves and impact tea quality. To address this challenge, integrated pest management (IPM) techniques can be employed. IPM involves a combination of preventive measures, biological controls, and, when necessary, judicious use of pesticides to minimize pest damage while preserving the ecosystem. Regular inspection of tea plants for signs of infestations and the introduction of beneficial insects or natural predators can contribute to sustainable pest management.
  • Soil and Nutrient Management: Maintaining healthy soil is crucial for tea cultivation. Soil quality can impact tea flavor and yield. Conducting soil tests to assess nutrient levels and pH is a fundamental step. Based on the results, organic or slow-release fertilizers can be applied to provide essential nutrients to the tea plants. Regular soil conditioning with organic matter, such as compost, can improve soil structure, moisture retention, and nutrient availability, promoting healthier tea bushes that are more resilient to weather fluctuations and pests.

Incorporating these strategies, can help mitigate the challenges posed by unpredictable weather patterns, pests, and soil conditions. By adopting these practices, tea growers in Pakistan can enhance the sustainability and success of their homegrown tea ventures, contributing to the growth of a local tea industry and reducing dependence on imports.

Homegrown Tea Leaves: The Success Stories

Eva Lee: The Hawaiian Tea Pioneer

Eva Lee with her tea leaves.

Eva Lee, a scientist with an intense curiosity for tea, set out on an unusual quest to bring tea cultivation to Hawaii, an island paradise far removed from typical tea-growing regions. She carefully picked tea varieties that were suited to conditions in Hawaii, where the volcanic soil and various microclimates provided a great environment for tea growing. Through rigorous experimentation, Eva achieved remarkable success, ultimately producing high-quality tea leaves. Notably, her pioneering efforts contributed to the emergence of a burgeoning tea industry in Hawaii.

 Importantly, the tea industry in Hawaii has witnessed a growth rate of approximately 20% annually, signifying both economic potential and a sustainable alternative for tea production in non-traditional regions. Eva Lee's dedication not only solidified her reputation in the Hawaiian tea industry but also highlighted the broader potential for cultivating tea in unexpected locales.

Tam O'Braan: The Scottish Tea Grower

Tam O'Braan near his tea plantation.

Tam O'Braan ventured into a novel tea-growing endeavour amid the breathtaking scenery of Scotland, confounding expectations in an area not normally associated with tea cultivation. He developed a tea plantation in Perthshire, taking advantage of the area's mild temperature and good soil. Tam's journey was not without difficulties, as the climate in Scotland differed significantly from that of traditional tea-growing countries. Nevertheless, he approached these obstacles with innovative solutions, such as wrapping tea bushes in fleece during colder months and adopting distinctive cultivation practices. Over time, these efforts bore fruit, and Tam successfully yielded limited quantities of Scottish-grown tea.

Tam O'Braan's determination and inventive approach garnered international recognition and admiration. His story serves as a testament to the adaptability of tea cultivation to diverse climates and regions, and it underscores the potential for locally sourced tea production even in areas not traditionally associated with this industry. Additionally, this diversification has contributed to the revitalization of small-scale agriculture in Scotland, offering valuable economic and environmental benefits to the region.

Embrace the Sustainable Journey

Engaging in home gardening and tea cultivation fosters mental and physical well-being, reducing stress and promoting a healthier lifestyle. This holistic approach to sustainability extends beyond reducing imports to improving personal wellness. Tea Cultivation can be done on a subsistence level (ideal for personal cultivation) or on a larger, corporate scale for greater production.

In conclusion, from planting tea seeds in your backyard to brewing a perfect cup of chai, the journey is filled with tradition, sustainability, and global inspiration. By embracing the art of cultivating your own tea, you not only contribute to a greener world but also savor the comforting embrace of a cup of Pakistani chai like never before. Start your sustainable odyssey today and take a significant step toward import independence in the realm of tea consumption. 

Chai in Pakistan: Culture, Dependance and Opportunity

Undergraduate Content Writer

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