Gordon Ramsay got here before me. So did Alain Ducasse, Jamie Oliver and Nobu. Even Peruvian super-chef Gaston Acurio has opened his own outlet in Doha, Qatar’s burgeoning capital. But I’m standing them all up. On my fleeting visit to Doha, I want to eat local and sample the cuisine of Qatar and its neighbours across the Middle East.
On my first, long-ago trip through the Middle East, scraping by on a meagre budget, I survived on a repetitive diet of hummus and kebabs. This trip is different. Thanks to tips from locals, I discover all sorts of delights I’ve never eaten before. Syrian eggplant stew. Chicken livers in pomegranate sauce. Armenian sausage. In this one tiny emirate, I discover a cornucopia of undreamt-of flavours. And I’m not the only one.
“I thought I was familiar with Arabic food, growing up in western Sydney, but I had no idea of its breadth and depth,” says Rachel Morris. A long-time Qatari resident who runs travel blog Life on the Wedge, Morris joins me for dinner at Damasca One, a Syrian restaurant in the heart of Doha’s oldest souq, Souq Waqif. Middle Eastern food, she reminds me, is designed to be enjoyed communally. “Food is at the centre of the meal, but it’s secondary to the idea of eating together,” she says.
As I eat my way across neighbouring countries, I’m reminded how small differences can make a big impact. At Damasca One, we order mutabal, an eggplant dip that is distinguished from the better known baba ghanoush by the addition of tahini, which gives the flavour an added boost.
At Mamig, a restaurant serving both Lebanese and Armenian cuisine, I take second and third helpings of the fishne kebab, a dish which lifts the traditional lamb kebab to the next level thanks to a generous serve of sweet-sour cherry sauce.
Not every dish wins me over. At Basta, which specialises in Qatari cuisine, I find the traditional harees porridge, made of boiled wheat studded with meat, a trifle stodgy. However, I eagerly scoop up spoonfuls of majboos, a biryani-like dish fragrant with saffron and cardamom.
My most memorable dining experience, however, is at Parisi. The interior of this Persian restaurant is like something from One Thousand and One Nights. There are glittering glass mosaics and arched doorways, oriental chandeliers and velvet upholstered seating. The waiter tells me that there are 22 chefs in the kitchen – most of them Iranian – just waiting to serve up a banquet of delights for me.
I’ll have to take his word on the size of the kitchen brigade, but the food lives up to expectations. Every plate is intriguing, from the rice – served three ways, plain, flavoured with saffron, and pepped up with broad beans and dill – to a fabulous starter of diced green olives teamed with pomegranate and crushed walnut. It’s the best thing I’ve eaten in Doha, and you can tell Gordon I said so.
Ute Junker was a guest of Qatar Airways.
Qatar Airways has daily flights to Doha from Melbourne, and twice-daily flights from Sydney. See qatarairways.com
Expect contemporary Islamic stylings and an Olympic-size swimming pool at The St Regis Doha. From QAR 750 a night. See st-regis.marriott.com
Basta Don’t let those cool graffitied walls fool you. The Qatari food at Basta is entirely traditional. See facebook/basta.qatar
Damasca One A superb Syrian restaurant that also features live music and dancers. See damascarestaurant.com
Mamig Overlooking the Gulf, this is the place to enjoy Armenian and Lebanese cuisine. See mamigdoha.com
Parisa The dazzling interiors are distracting, but the real star at Parisa is the flavour-packed Persian cuisine. See facebook.com/parisasouq