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First memories:

A Qatari cultural and culinary journey 

In the second part of this special three-part series, award-winning author, social and human rights activist and one Qatar’s change-makers, Shaima Al Sultan, takes a trip down memory lane with some of her favourite food traditions as a child.

Every Friday at 8:00 am our family would go to the corniche for breakfast. We would place a picnic blanket on the floor with each one of us holding a corner until all the items had been placed. Once we had settled, we would wait for my father and mother to reach into the bags filled with fresh bread, liver meat from an Iranian restaurant called Rex, and msabbaha (a variation of hummus) from a well-known Beirut restaurant.

Our parents would split the food into individual portions and hand it out to us in small plates. My father shared the bread between us while my mother poured the tea with milk into the glass that was once used to store the spreadable cheese. We would eat and play, then head off to our grandmother’s house to continue our Friday. These mornings were my favourite as time passed with the stories told by my parents.

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“Eating seafood during the weekend is a common practice in Qatari households”


Seafood Fridays

As Friday would mark the start of the weekend, it was usually the day extended families would gather across Qatar. We would go to my grandmother’s house where the most delicious seafood would await us.

Eating seafood during the weekend is a common practice in Qatari households and because it was a weekly occurrence, my grandmother would vary the dishes.

One Friday, she served trays of Umm al-Rubyan (jumbo shrimp). With the food plated on circular trays, we would gather around and relish in the deliciousness of all the accompanying dishes on the table.

Another Friday, she served machboos hamour (fish and rice) with louba (beans) that no one else can perfect like her. We would usually eat this meal with just a splash of lemon, but my uncles would prefer it with an onion and tomato salad.

White rice coated with ghee, served alongside safi fish and crispy kingfish was another Friday meal. The kingfish would be beautifully stuffed with rice and tomato pieces, which we used to playfully fight over as the juice from the tomatoes would soften the rice.

A long, deep nap would follow each hearty Friday meal.

Ramadan neighbourhood love

Over the month of Ramadan, our dining tables were filled with a variety of homemade dishes for iftar — the evening meal when we would break our fast. 

During the afternoon, and leading up to the Maghrib call to prayer, our neighbours would go from house to house to share the dishes that they had made for iftar. Each house would distribute the dish that they specialised in such as harees, thareed and madrouba, as well as desserts like luqaimat or falooda, and my favourite that no one made better than my grandmother, mahalabia aish. This dessert contains simple ingredients like bread, milk, and rose water, but it was my grandmother’s magic touch that made it that extra special.

latif’s famous fish

Today Qatar is lined up with some of the most finest, extraordinary and world-renowned restaurants and cafes, but for me, one local restaurant still relishes in my food memory. We would stop in the empty space opposite the New World Centre where this small restaurant served a famous fish meal. I don’t remember the restaurant’s name but it was widely referred to as Latif’s fish. There was especially one meal that cars lined up for — a fish coated in a crispy red layer combined with the restaurant’s signature red sauce and bread. Latif kept his fish legacy going until his death, but sadly, the secret recipe was buried with him never to return.


Harees

: beaten wheat mixed with meat and seasoning

Thareed

: pieces of bread in a vegetable or meat broth

madrouba

: beaten rice, chicken and spices 

During my childhood, dining options were very limited in Doha, but after some time new restaurants began popping up in the Souq like the one in the Oasis Hotel and the Al Bustan restaurant, which can still be found today.

Then came the global wave of restaurants like Pizza Hut, Sterling, Ponderosa, India Star, and others. However the city was able to maintain the memories built with those small original places, like Latif’s, in people’s mind. 

a thriving food scene

Following the huge developments in infrastructure, space and technology, the restaurant scene in Doha has come a long way. The food has become a lot more diverse and the number of restaurants now open have left people spoilt for choice on where to eat.

From international restaurants headed by world-class chefs, to restaurants run by Qatari youth, the country’s food scene is thriving. Yet, traditional restaurants that sell Qatari food, such as L’wzaar Sea Food Restaurant that serves Qatari seafood with a beautiful waterfront view at Katara Cultural Village, are still in demand and of interest. 

Most recently, speciality coffee cafés have become very common, with many competing over the best brunch or all-day breakfast service. These have become very popular options among the youth as well as for those who work long hours. In addition to this, ordering food to your home from phone apps has also become a norm in Qatari society, something that was not available when I was growing up.

However, even with all these changes and advancements in technology, the Friday family gatherings remain sacred. There will always be this longing and craving for a get together, a delicious home-cooked meal and chatter around the dining table, because good food always creates a collective memory that people can share and exchange forever.


Cover: Diamond Dogs/Getty images

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