(Photo by @SpecialKRB)
The message came as I was eating my second lunch of the day. James was unsure about the food options in Doha, where he works and where I’d be crashing for an entire week. “Maybe you should bring some protein bars with you and write about that,” he texted. “Ha ha!” I replied. “You know I can eat anywhere.”
Fast forward to the Jean-Georges restaurant at the W Doha, where @SpecialKRB — still in her TEDx NY t-shirt — James, and I are huddled around a small table groaning with crab, lobster, steak, burgers, and one or two other things I have completely forgotten about. I cannot taste a thing. My stomach feels like it’s trying to ‘asplode me from the inside, like the bad swarthy man in an episode of “24”. Is this what middle age has brought me: panic attacks on airplanes and a digestive system in revolt when I eat after 6pm Thai time? And what indeed am I to do here if this affliction does not go away?
The answer may be to eat something you don’t like all that much. We find this out the next day, after getting kicked out of a TEDx event on the waterfront at the Katara Cultural Village. We wander into Mamig (Armenian for “grandma”), which serves, of course, Armenian specialties and the Lebanese dishes that every Middle Eastern restaurant has to provide if they want to please any customer ever.
We focus on Armenian, and the results are … different. Full of nuts, wholesome enough to be tree-hugger fodder, but big on citrus and sweet pomegranate flavors, this food gives you the sense you are eating something that is good for you, but if you have to keep reminding yourself that, something must be wrong. Along with a pistachio-studded beef “mortadella” and an entire bowl of pickled vegetables, we get these tiny little birds, like sparrows, coated in honey and pomegranate juice and lemon and full of little bones that crunch when you bite into them. It’s weird.
“This is like Game of Thrones food,” says James. Coming from a man who falls asleep once the opening credits stop running, this is not a compliment.
Maybe we’re not going authentic enough. We hit a restaurant called an “institution” by Time Out Doha magazine, Al Shami Home Restaurant (in case you don’t get it from the name, this is “home cooking”) and order all the dishes we should have ordered before, all the hummus and baba ghanouj and light, fluffy pitas that flop onto the plate. And it’s unmemorable, maybe marred by the clouds of smoke coming from every other table in the room. But I would like to report that it’s true: people can indeed set themselves on fire from the shisha set so perilously close to the table. A man’s sleeve caught on fire. You must watch your shisha, people.
Do I want American food? Is that it? We head to Ric’s Kountry Kitchen (yes, really), where we order biscuits and gravy and get beef sausage and cheesy grits. We also get a pecan “pie”, set on a crust that is literally indestructible.
Me: “I can’t cut through this crust!”
James: “Maybe they want to reuse it for their next pie.”
Me: “It’s uncanny!”
James: “Is this the stuff they make the new Airbuses out of?”
And so on and so on.
No. We’ve been relying on restaurants. The answer to our dietary malaise is, obviously, street food. At Souq Waqqib, we come upon an entire courtyard of ladies who make mankouche, or crispy, thin crepes that are slathered with either Nutella (sweet option) or labneh and a heavy sprinkle of za’atar (sesame seeds, thyme, sumac). We ambush an entire row of women who provide real home cooking: they make their food at home and haul it over to the souq at nightfall. We try everything, selecting harees, a creamy mix of chicken, wheat and ghee; keshari, a tomato-based stew ladled over a spaghetti-macaroni mix; madrooba, flaked fish in, again, a creamy sauce; malfouf, cabbage stuffed with meat; and waraganab, stuffed grape leaves. We discover that much of this is a whole lot like baby food, and that this may be the point: it’s hot in Qatar, there are a lot of people, you’ve got a lot of things to do. Maybe you need the ultimate comfort food when you get home.
(Photo by @SpecialKRB)
So (barring a lunch at a secret restaurant that I can’t talk about), this is my vote for best meal of the week: cartons of take-away, eaten with plastic utensils on the sidewalk next to the neighboring Thai restaurant, shared with a stray cat. Somehow, my rebellious stomach stayed quiet that entire evening.