A Decadent Binge in Doha

Qatar’s capital rustles up a culinary storm. From Armenian samosa to baby hamour ceviche, here are five food experiences that make the city delicious.  
A Decadent Binge in Doha
Whether in a park or an art gallery, good food hogs a significant share of Doha's social calendar. Photo by: Maremagnum/Photolibrary/Getty Images

“But butter chicken is on the iftar menu!” announces Hameed, my guide in Doha. His excited declaration, a few days before Ramadan, tells me a lot. Whether the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach is debatable, but it is a fairly handy tip when you’re in Doha. Breaking bread with the locals (men and women) or simply talking about food is the easiest way to befriend them. Born in Palestine and raised in Doha, with a Syrian-Palestinian wife who can rustle up a mean Indian meal, Hameed is a good indicator of the city’s cosmopolitanism.

Over the years, fluid trade relations have ensured that Doha houses a large number of expats. The coexistence means that its culinary milieu imbibes a sea of foreign flavours. Here, you will find yourself in a Moroccan eatery as easily as you might dig into a Lebanese cold mezze platter, as the heady concurrence of Turkish, Indian, Armenian, and Japanese cuisine (among others) jostle for your attention across the city. Little wonder that gastronomic outings monopolise the average Doha resident’s social calendar, serving well to make up for the restrictions on alcohol, or a thriving nightlife. Here are five food experiences that exemplify Doha’s mouth-watering culinary landscape.

 

The Ramsay Relish

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Opal by Gordon Ramsay offers a mix of classic recipes enlivened with visual quirks. The Opal also serves Ramsay’s signature Beef Wellington (in photo). Photo courtesy: Opal by Gordon Ramsay

It might be hell in his kitchen, but what’s on your plate is nothing short of bliss. Opal By Gordon Ramsay, at the St. Regis Doha, boasts the largest sommelier’s collection in the city, but for me, it is the breezy European bistro-like setting and the gourmet pizza station that seals the ‘Gordon Ramsay experience’.

The afternoon of my visit, there’s a band playing in the al fresco area, its female vocalist crooning a melodious version of Drake’s Hotline Bling. Around us, guests mill about—ladies who lunch and couples, families and professionals. I settle down with a glass of rosé, soaking in the à la mode setting over a light kale-and-burrata salad. The wild mushroom and truffle flatbread that arrives next hits the ball out of the park with an olio of truffle cream mixed  with mushroom and provolone cheese. The baby hamour ceviche is no less delectable, with avocado, pomelo and fennel flavouring the raw fish. With such high precedent, I didn’t have the heart to skip the iconic Opal Wagyu burger, despite a full tummy. The done-to-perfection beef patty, layered with earthy comté cheese and BBQ sauce and capsuled in a brioche bun, was proof that my lack of self-restraint was, in hindsight, an excellent decision. Dessert, as they say, demands its own chamber in the stomach, and I am happy to make room for the chocolate and amaretti pudding, crested with luscious crème anglaise. Tipplers can grab the boozy shakes, or the vodka-based Lemon Drop and Red Ruby cocktails, and for teetotallers, the minty Charlie Parker is as good a liquid accompaniment as any. A meal for two at Opal costs approximately QAR400/Rs7,558, while The Friday Brunch is priced at QAR450/Rs8,503, including alcohol.

 

Double the Delight

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The tart-sweet pop of pomegranate seeds on the mama ghanouj—a zucchini-based spin on the famous baba ghanouj—elevates this dish from Mamig restaurant. Photo by: Ananya Bahl

Armenian-Lebanese chef Zarmig’s restaurant Mamig channels the vibe of a Lebanese garden on a balmy summer day. Located in Katara Cultural Village, the space is made charming by snaking bougainvillea plants, and table cloths, serviettes, and ceramic crockery tattooed with dainty flower motifs. It offers ample seating options, ranging from ones styled after traditional Armenian homes to a more contemporary shisha lounge. I choose the floral-themed outdoor terrace overlooking the Arabian Gulf, and trust Zarmig to make the right choice when it comes to my order.

Custom demands that we begin with the hot and cold mezzes, along with a serving of salads. I’m intrigued by the Armenian tabbouleh salad with Lebanese mint: it is warm and packs a spicy punch. The cold mezzes include panjarov sarma, or meat-and-rice stuffed vine leaves lathered in a pomegranate-molasses reduction; and rolled eggplant with walnut, dill, Armenian labneh and tahina sauce. The secret, I am told, is in the correct use of spices and fresh herbs brought in straight from Armenia. We move onto the hot mezzes that comprise a delightful plate of the cigar-like cheese-filled Lebanese finger food rekakat, Mamig’s chilli vart boereg—an Armenian version of a samosa—and the star of the show, soujouk, a spicy Armenian sausage slathered in tomato sauce. By now, I am beyond stuffed (happens a lot in Doha, you see?) but allowance must be made for the famed Mamig cherry fishne kebab—succulent lamb simmered in a sweet-sour cherry sauce, served on a bed of parsley and bread. The dyad of the soaked bread and the tender meat chunks ensures a sweet climax even without dessert. This multi-ethnic experience is likely to leave your wallet lighter by QAR300/Rs5,669.

 

Chai, Karak

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Locals have embraced a milky, sugary avatar of tea called karak, apart from their pet beverages of coffee and black tea. Photo by: Jasmin Merdan/Moment/Getty Images

Qatar is deeply influenced by the Indian culture—butter chicken and Bachchan are both popular here. Across the Arab world, it is the black tea that is gulped by the gallon. The same is true of Qatar. However, locals have also embraced a sweet-and-spicy variant that they like to call karak. Plainly put, it’s a sweeter and milkier version of our masala chai, and is said to be an Indian import from over half a century ago.

Hameed and I stop at Chapati & Karak, a tiny shack-like outlet in the seaside Katara Cultural Village. It’s 4 p.m. and I’m craving a caffeine kick. Despite the blistering heat, the cup in my hand cools my travel-weary mind, for just QAR3/Rs57. The crisp chapati, which costs QAR2/Rs38, can be likened to a sweeter version of the Kerala parotta. We do this the local way—drive down with to-go cups to the Corniche waterfront and sip on our karaks, as the city’s skyline shimmers in the distance.

 

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From horse-mounted policemen (top) to souvenir shops, spectacles abound at Souq Waqif; Opulent restaurants bring out the Souq’s glamorous edge (bottom). Photos by: Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images (top), Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images (bottom)

Souq with a Side of Snacks

When Hameed says he can spend all day at Souq Waqif, a spices and souvenir market square in central Doha, I peg it to his natural enthusiasm. But he’s right, time flows in strange ways at the souq, with its dreamy Arabian Nights character, traditional Qatari architecture, and robust choices in restaurants and shisha lounges. A walk familiarises me with its falcon centres, attar shops, traditional clothing stores, checkers majlis—parts that make up the whole kinetic cultural mise en scène unfolding before us.

The souq is lined with al fresco coffee shops where you can nurse a cuppa joe (try gahwa, or Arabic coffee, at Ali Al Nama Coffee; QAR40/Rs756 for two), smoke shisha (at Tajine) and people-watch. There are handcarts selling everything from Turkish ice cream and samosas to Palestinian snacks, candy, and corn-on-the-cob. Don’t miss out on the khobez ergag—a super-thin Arab bread laced with Nutella, sold at a market in the souq run by local women. Head to Damasca, a restaurant known for its sumptuous Syrian fare for two priced at QAR150-200/Rs2,834-3,779. On your way out, stop for a swig of tamar hindi, a drink of tamarind and rose petal, from the vendor outside.

 

An African Safari

Argan, located within the Souq Waqif Boutique Hotel, is said to serve the best Moroccan food in Doha. Swathed in fine purple and orange tapestry, replete with majlis, it is reminiscent of a home in Marrakesh. For a change, there is no hummus and falafel—the cuisine is entirely north African. Instead, you’re greeted by decadent tagines, crackling couscous, and pastilla.

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Argan’s mixed platter is a treat, with humble salads of beet, cucumber and spinach made jazzy, Moroccan style. Photo courtesy: Argan

We start with zaalouk, an eggplant and tomato salad, and a carrot salad made zesty with a salvo of secret Moroccan spices. There’s also the bakoula: with spinach, olives, and pickled lemon. The pastilla, a gorgeous meaty affair, is my favourite. Think chicken braised with ginger, nutmeg, butter, almonds, and orange blossom water, the stuffing enveloped inside a filo pastry sprinkled with icing sugar! A meal at Argan costs around QAR300/Rs5,669.

It’s the Moroccan mint tea, and an orange salad with cinnamon, date, and almond, that winds up my decadent romance with Doha. For now.

  • Ananya Bahl is a travel writer who loves exploring big cities and swears by the friends she makes on the road. Apart from tall glasses of Aperol Spritz, her obsessions include pop culture, world music and Arabic movies.

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