When I first visited Doha in March last year there was one place on top of my list—Souq Waqif. This is Doha’s oldest market and I was told getting lost in the meandering lanes of Souk Waqif is basically mandatory for first timers. And though I never really lost my way (thank god for Google Maps) I did build up an enormous appetite after a hard day of haggling, admiring hooded falcons and stubborn camels. A proper feast was in order. Initially it was the air conditioning on a hot summer day that lured me to Parisa, but the ambience and Persian food soon caught up. A glittery walkway leads to a visually stunning restaurant studded with colourful mirrors, mosaic, hand-painted artworks and ornate chandeliers. I almost forget to eat as I jostle with my camera to take a thousand pictures! But my stomach was equally dazzled with the Persian feast which starts with a brilliantly spiced muhammara and an incredibly creamy and perfectly whipped up hummus. This is followed by succulent jooje kabab (gounded lamb kabab) baghali polow (fava beans and dil flavoured rice) and then pistachio saffron icecream. It’s a veritable smorgasbord. Thank god for stretchy pants!
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Another stellar joint at Souq Waqif is the Syrian restaurant Damasca One. I almost made a meal of the mutabal here while a Tanoura dancer kept spinning on the mini stage. This eggplant dip is distinguished from the better known baba ghanoush by the addition of tahini, which gives the dish an added boost. Mains mostly consist of majboos a biryani-like dish fragrant with saffron and cardamom. But the dish that really blew my mind was warak enab—short, pinkie-sized fingers of vine leaves rolled tightly with minced meat, rice and spices. Savoury, salty and just a bit sour it packs a punch that’s hard to forget.
As I wander around the bustling lanes in an attempt to burn off the meal it’s evening time. That’s when Qatari women set up temporary stalls serving traditional food. The thing to try here is the ragag a thin dosa like crepe topped with cream cheese or Nutella and folded in the shape of a cone. The Qataris commonly eat ragag for breakfast, but it makes for an excellent snack too. Arabic coffee (also known as qahwa), a light and flavourful black coffee without milk and sugar is served in small cups and there’s limonana a sweet, tart and refreshing lemon and mint drink for the teetotalers.
Traditional at heart, Qatar's cuisine is a mix of Arabic, Middle Eastern and Indian. Spices such as cardamom, saffron, cinnamon and chili are common to the cuisine as also colourful plates of lentils, minced meats, kebabs and stews with mounds of rice, seasoned vegetables and warm pita to complement the flavour fest.
Indian influences shine the brightest. Take the karak for instance which was brought to the GCC region by traders who visited India. “They would sit and drink this tea and fell in love with it. My father said their tea was similar to ours, but theirs was strong and spicy,” says Shams al-Qassabi, Qatar’s first female trader in Doha's Souq Waqif and owner of the restaurant Shay Al Shamous. Karak similar to kadak chai (strong tea) became ingrained in Doha’s food culture when Indian men migrated to Qatar to assist with household duties and later started small cafeterias in Doha. The only difference is that the Qatari karak doesn’t include ginger or spices. Cardamom is the only spice added to the tea, though some people also like to add cinnamon, cloves or saffron to bring more flavour to the milk tea.
Chapati rolled up with cheese, eggs, tomatoes and kheema with a generous lashing of zataar is the most preferred accompaniment with karak. Chapati & Karak at Katara Cultural Village is the best place to tuck into this delight, though there is usually a cavalcade of cars in front of the shack. Another local delicacy that reminded me of India is the luqaimat the Qatari equivalent of a gulab jamun but crispier. The dough is rolled into tiny little balls and deep fried till brown. They are mostly served with sugar syrup or date syrup but that has quickly progressed to chocolate, condensed milk and various other toppings in recent years.
Big guns in Doha
Considering two thirds of the residents of Qatar are foreigners, it’s no surprise that some of the most renowned chefs have set base here. Apart from the largest Nobu in the world, Doha is also home to Morimoto inside the magnificent Mondrian. Expect his signature omakase, tartars, robata, tempura, sushi, sashimi and Wagyu.
Wolfgang Puck too brought his sophisticated American restaurant, CUT, to Doha in 2017. Even Peruvian super-chef Gaston Acurio has opened his own outlet in Qatar's burgeoning capital. But one meal that is embossed in my food obsessed memory is the lunch at Café #999 at the erstwhile Doha Fire Station. Neapolitan pizza with a crust still hissing with life, grilled octopus that’s too pretty to eat, a burrata collapsing on vibrant tomatoes and syrup-soaked citrus baba - Alain Ducasse’s Café #999 is definitely the spot to fuel up on great Italian meal in Doha. The graffiti drenched, quirky brick oven designed by artist Mubarak Al-Malik perfectly sums up Doha – a place full of art and heart!
• Best time to travel is between November to February.
• Visa on arrival is available for Indians.
• Qatar Airways, IndiGo and Vistara operate direct flights to Doha from India.
• Hopping on board the Doha Metro is a great way to get around the city for less. Ride sharing apps such as Careem and Uber are also available.
• Though Qatar is refreshing tolerant, women need to dress modestly by covering their shoulders and knees. Beachwear is accepted at hotel pools, not in public places.
• Alcohol is permitted only in hotel bars and licensed restaurants. Drinking in public is prohibited.
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