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Food & travel

Global bounty of food traditions runs deep in Qatar

By Marie Doezema
Globe Correspondent / January 20, 2010

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DOHA, Qatar - This is a place of glitz and glitter, grit and grime. A city where Lamborghinis travel the same streets as rickety school buses filled with day laborers; where champagne and caviar are just as much a part of the culinary landscape as roadside tea stalls.

Once referred to as an up-and-coming Dubai - an awkward younger sibling, perhaps - the city’s skyline remains dotted with construction cranes despite the global recession. Bordering the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia, Qatar (pronounced KAH-tur) is slightly smaller than Connecticut but is one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Thanks to its oil and gas reserves, the country has the second highest per-capita income after Liechtenstein.

If the city had a soundtrack, it would be a relentless hum, the sound of bulldozers and air conditioning. Its perfume would be a dusty blend of sweet shisha smoke, charcoal, and exhaust.

Foreigners with temporary residence-status make up about three-fourths of the country’s population, and this gives Doha a lively food scene. Local specialties include pomegranate slushies and avocado milkshakes, succulent dates and tangy labneh, homemade yogurt cheese. Though Pizza Hut and Burger King are both easy to find, the local version of fast food is tastier: chewy bread wrapped around roasted meat and crunchy, colorful salads.

The Indian residents of Qatar (they number about one-fifth of the country’s population) bring a wealth of food traditions, from curries and biryani to dosa and idli. Tea stalls that border the city’s thoroughfares serve sweet chai, biscuits, fresh-squeezed juices, and savory snacks.

Some of the best food in Doha is found in small kitchens around the city and across the desert. For the many workers who come from afar, leaving behind parents, spouses, and children, kitchens become a place not just of sustenance, but a means of connection, places where nourishment meets memory.

At one end of Doha’s Corniche, the crescent-shaped walkway along the bay, lies the city’s most celebrated fish market. It takes place at night, when silver fish skins glitter all the more brightly under moonlight. Fishermen bring their catches directly up to the sidewalk. Lanterns and stars light the way as locals gather to buy dinner. This is what’s fresh, and this is what’s cheap. Mohammed Ismail, a local bus driver, depends on the market for the best deals in town. Ismail came to Doha from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu seven years ago. When he cooks, it’s a way of remembering his parents, wife, and young daughter back home.

Since we are both temporary transplants in Doha, Ismail and I talk food. Tastes of our childhoods, cravings for home. We agree to a cooking exchange. One night, I make a cobbler. Another night, he teaches me how to make seafood curry. It all starts with the fish, he tells me, describing how to pick out the best one at the night market.

“The secret is not in the eyes, it’s in the gills,’’ he says. “If the gills are open and the color is pink or light red, the fish is fresh. If it’s white, it’s old.’’

All parts of the fish go into the curry: head, bones, and skin. Before we begin cooking, he calls his mom in India to get insider tips on the recipe. Tomato paste, she says. If it’s looking too thin, add tomato paste. How much? The answer seems obvious to her: However much you need.

This is a recipe intended to be passed down from generation to generation, using local ingredients or whatever is available. The night we’re cooking, Ismail has brought a few crucial ingredients from home: tamarind paste, curry leaves, blends of spices.

The curry might change according to cupboard, season, catch of the day, or personal whim. But one thing remains constant: It’s a taste of home, a dish made with love and longing.