The Expats’ Guide to Qatari Cuisine
From celebrity chef outposts to cheap, cheerful cafés and global brands, Qatar offers a dizzying array of international cuisines—and the options are expanding daily. Perhaps then, it’s no surprise that the traditional cuisine of Qatar can be overlooked in favour of more well-known options. But this enigmatic cuisine offers a glimpse of the nation’s fleeting past and its bright, exciting future.
Qatari cuisine is a blend of bold flavours with wholesome, natural ingredients. Fragrantly spiced stews, curries and casseroles reflect the easy and earthy style of one-pot cooking, hearty cooking styles and uncomplicated methods. Khaled Al Rayes, Qatari cook and founder of the international street-food pop-up, Back to Roots, explains: “During the 1950s and 60s people didn’t have the ingredients, utensils or lifestyles that we have today. So that’s why most of our food is simple. It used to be very basic. People lived from the land and sea. The discovery of oil soon changed everything. With money came wealth and a huge influx of international products. This was true for most of the Gulf region.”
A nod to international trade and relations, traditional Qatari food is inspired by cuisines in India, Iran, the Levant and North Africa but uses its own blend of spices and local ingredients.
A special blend
Spices are a staple of Qatari cuisine. The most popular spices are cardamom, cumin, cloves and saffron. Many families make their own spice blends to use in main dishes and drinks. In fact, Shams Al Qassabi, owner of Shay AlShomous Café, started her career by blending special spices for private clients from home. As Shams says, “Everyone has their own touch but the basics are the same. Some people like to add more or less spices or different types of vegetables.”
Of course, the Arabian Gulf provides Qatar with an abundance of seafood, so it’s no surprise that fish is a popular ingredient in Qatari cuisine. At the fish market on the Corniche, daily catches of fresh seafood can be seen arriving in little boats during the early morning. Many of the older generations still buy hammour, safi fish, blue swimmer crab and shark straight from the dock rather than supermarkets.
Qatar is also fortunate to have a long and propitious farming season. Some family farms are a cornucopia of homegrown delights, producing plenty of dates, honey, fresh herbs, vegetables and fruit. Lamb and other meats, such as camel, are purchased locally from farmers’ markets such as Al Mazrouah Yard.
During the winter months, some Qatari families may go out truffle hunting or picking indigenous plants. Noor Al Mazroie, a Qatari cuisine recipe developer, explains, “After the winter rain we all go searching for truffles, known as fagaa, from under the sand. You can see little pops on the surface of the earth and usually, you’ll find a truffle. White truffle is the most precious and most delicious!”
The most important meal of the week is prepared after prayers on Fridays when extended family, including cousins, aunts and uncles, gather for a communal feast. Traditional meals include dishes such as machboos, which is served on a large platter with three or four other main dishes, including harees, hammour saloona, and safi fish, along with sweet rice and fresh, simple salads of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce dressed with lemon.
Of course, there is more to eating than just the food. Meals are also an important way of bringing families and loved ones together. Friday lunch is an important time for everyone, particularly family elders, to catch up on the news of the week. In Khaled Al Rayes’s family, this means no distractions like mobile phones during the family meal. His grandmother insisted on it. “When we arrived at her house, my grandma would hand around a basket to collect all mobile phones. No phone calls or text messages were to be made or answered,” he says.
Typically each family has its own unique and special recipe for dishes such as machboos. Some family recipes are secret and only to be passed on to the next generation. Isra Aljefairi, owner and founder of Al Manchab Restaurant says, “In our culture, we don’t write [down] the recipes. The women teach cooking to family members in the home and this tradition has stayed with us.”
Steeped in Qatari heritage, food customs and etiquette reflect important social values, respect and beliefs. They also provide a framework for community relationships and social behaviour. At mealtimes, the guest is served first and must always be the first to eat. Traditionally a whole lamb is served on a bed of rice with a selection of simple salads and eaten with the right hand only—the fingers are used as a makeshift fork and food is scooped up into little tasty bite-sized morsels.
Qatari coffee, or qahwa, is a golden-hued blend of lightly roasted coffee beans, saffron and cardamom. Some families serve qahwa and dates to guests upon arrival, and it’s common for families to always have a pot brewing during the day. However, there is a special etiquette for pouring qahwa into the thimble-sized cups. Noor Al Mazroie remembers learning how to pour a proper cup of coffee: “When I was very young, my grandpa gave me a test one day. He asked me to pour the qahwa into a cup. I did as I was told, and then he looked at the amount and split the coffee into two cups, showing me that this was the right amount.” Qahwa cups must also be held in the right hand. When finished drinking, the cup must be shaken before returning to the owner, to indicate that no more coffee is wanted.
In Qatari homes, the guest is always treated with respect and it’s a sentiment shared by Isra Aljefairi: “Qatari hospitality is very welcoming… if you serve food to people it means that you love them.”
Past, present and future
As Qatar experiences rapid economic growth and social development, the taste buds of the nation are changing too. Isra says, “Our culture is moving so fast especially in the food industry. Our menu used to be purely traditional Qatari food. But my clientele has asked for a twist, so we have adapted our recipes. Now people want vegan and organic options. I wanted to create a concept that people would be proud of—Qatari food with a modern twist. I love my culture and I wanted to create a place with true Qatari hospitality and food.”
As Shams Al Qassabi says, “Our people try a lot of Western food, Chinese, Thai, you name it. But at the end of the day, something will always pull them to their roots. What’s better than traditional food? It’s home-made with love [and meant to be shared] with family.”
Where to eat
From home-style meals to five-star fusion, there are plenty of restaurants offering their take on traditional Qatari cuisine. Special thanks to Qatari foodies Khaled Al Rayes, Al Annod Al Thani, Ahmad J Al Hamadi and Fatma Al Tamimi for their recommendations. Check out their picks here:
Traditional Qatari breakfast
Tucked away in the beautiful Al Bidda Boutique Hotel, Shams Al Qassabi’s café is a favourite of royals, visiting politicians and celebrities. The walls are proudly decorated with her personal photos of the rich and famous.
Try the balaleet, rogag, aseeda and margouga
Location: Al Bidda Boutique Hotel, Souq Waqif
Contact: 5551-5561, 7750-5048
Hours: Saturday to Friday 08:00–13:00 and 18:00–23:00, closed for Friday prayer (Timings are subject to change, so call ahead to confirm)
Set in the stunning Al Hazm Mall, Al Manchab offers fine Qatari dining and hospitality in a luxurious setting.
Try the machboos, safi fish, saloona, balaleet
Location: Al Hazm Mall
Hours:Saturday to Thursday 09:00–23:00, Friday 13:00–23:00
Described as a “café with Qatari taste”, Easair Café is situated on the beach at Al Wakra Souq and has a menu dedicated to traditional Qatari food alongside Middle Eastern favourites.
Try the lamb machboos, harees, balaleet, madrooba, karak, foul Qatari, aseeda
Location: Souq Al Wakra, Al Wakra
Contact: 4488-5199, easaircafe.com
Hours: Daily 08:00–11:30, closed for Friday prayer
Traditional Qatari and Middle Eastern cuisine
Modelled on a traditional Qatari house with a majlis dining area (a seating area on the floor for entertaining or relaxing), Basta 23 serves a mix of Middle Eastern favourites plus Qatari classics.
Try the machboos (including shrimp, chicken and hammour), harees, balaleet, karak
Location: 29a La Croisette, Porto Arabia, The Pearl-Qatar
Hours: Daily 07:30–00:30, closed for Friday prayer
Location: Mall of Qatar, First Floor, Food Court
Hours: Saturday to Wednesday 09:00–23:15, Thursday and Friday 09:00–00:15, closed for Friday prayer
Qatari cuisine on the go
For a glimpse of Qatar’s heritage and past, you can’t beat Souq Waqif. Here you’ll find little cafés serving hot steaming cups of karak tea and soft chapatis filled with melted cheese or Nutella. During cooler months, you’ll find a group of Qatari women setting up makeshift stalls of traditional food serving machboos.