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Doha - If you’ve assembled a priceless collection of jaw-droppingly exquisite metalwork, ceramics, jewellery, woodwork, textiles and glass that spans 1 400 years, and you’ve put them in a stunning building designed by I M Pei, then you don’t get just anyone in to do the catering. At the Museum of Islamic Art on Doha’s Corniche waterfront, your coffee and sandwiches come courtesy of Alain Ducasse, with 19 Michelin stars to his name.
Ducasse has also just opened Idam – a full-on fine-dining restaurant – on the museum’s fifth floor. In Qatar, they don’t do things by half. And with one of the strongest and fastest-growing economies in the world (founded on the discovery of oil in 1939 and the largest single concentration of natural gas in 1971), why would they? The nation’s flag carrier, Qatar Airways, has grown at a phenomenal rate, and in early December becomes the first airline to fly the Boeing 787 Dreamliner from Heathrow – which will operate one of the five daily non-stop trips.
Qatar sticks up like a thumb from Saudi Arabia, halfway down the west coast of the Gulf. Under the rule of Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, Qatar, and more specifically its capital Doha, on the peninsula’s central eastern coast, has developed rapidly.
Over the past decade, Qatar’s population has doubled to more than 1.5 million, 85 percent of which is migrant workers who have helped to construct the city’s Manhattan-like West Bay skyline, Katara Cultural Village, the vast Pearl-Qatar (a man-made island development of apartments, restaurants and shops) and numerous malls.
The nation’s enormous wealth has meant plenty of opportunities for international luxury brands. As well as fashion names such as Givenchy and Cavalli at the gleaming Gate Mall, high-end restaurant groups are being attracted to the city. Next year a branch of Nobu will occupy a purpose-built home on the marina at the Four Seasons hotel; modern-Japanese Megu is already trading at the Pearl-Qatar and is soon to be joined by a fine dining restaurant from three-Michelin-starred Paris-based chef Guy Savoy.
Business travellers and passengers in transit make up 95 percent of visitors to Qatar, but the Qatar Tourism Authority’s goal of boosting tourism by 20 percent over the next five years won’t be met if all visitors find is an ersatz London, New York or Paris.
Beyond the modern extravagance, there are still traces of a Qatari heritage that go back to the 13th century, when it was an important pearling centre. Souq Waqif isn’t quite that old, but it does date back more than 100 years to when Doha was a small village where Bedouins would arrive with camel meat, milk and dates to sell.
Qatari cuisine is generally quite simple, traditionally consisting of plain grilled or boiled fish and lamb and camel meat from Bedouin flocks. But over the years, the food has been enriched by foreign influences, introduced by the pearl traders who brought back cloves, cardamom and cinnamon from South-East Asia.
The more recent influence of Lebanese and Syrian cooking has added dishes including mezze.
Although the souq was restored in 2004 it retains a traditional atmosphere: the covered alleys with their fabric shops, wooden booths with cross-legged cobblers, and narrow cafés lined with colourfully upholstered couches for locals to puff on shisha pipes. Cages of sad-looking rabbits and chicks dyed neon purple, pink and blue were a less appealing sight.
Souq Waqif is one of the few places in the city where you’ll find authentic Qatari cuisine. A row of open-air cafés in the centre offered traditional dishes such as harees (soaked split wheat and meat). Home-style dishes were being served by women dressed in traditional black abaya robes from stalls near the souq’s main parking area. I tried waraq enab (rice-stuffed vine leaves), madrooba (a thick, soft-textured stew of rice, vegetables and chicken) and umm ali (a sweet bread pudding made with nuts and white raisins).
Qatar has 563km of coastline, so seafood plays an important part in the nation’s cuisine. At L’Wzaar, one of several restaurants in the Katara Cultural Village complex (also home to an opera house, art galleries and a beach), I selected dazzlingly fresh fish from the large counter display to be cooked in an open kitchen to a method of my choice.
I found an equally good selection at the fish market on Salwa Road. Although the initial smell was off-putting, once past the gutting station and inside the air-conditioned, spotlessly clean market building, there was no smell at all. Next door, the furiously busy wholesale fruit and vegetable market is worth a look for the sheer energy of the place.
Qatari cuisine is virtually unknown outside the country and is served mostly in the home. It seems a shame that aside from using local seafood, international chefs don’t appear to be taking the opportunity to put their own spin on some indigenous dishes and help to preserve a heritage that can be difficult to spot among Doha’s futuristic landscape. That said, the food doesn’t really deliver the sort of sophisticated flavours you’ll find on a Vongerichten menu.
Doha may not be the gastronomic epicentre of the Middle East, but you can eat there well for a reasonable price (unless you factor in alcohol, available only in hotels and alarmingly expensive).
It is also a fascinating place with global ambitions, due to host the World Cup in 2022. It can only get more intriguing.
More information: Qatar Tourism: qatartourism.gov.qa – The Independent