A Culinary Journey Through Doha.

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Nothing evokes a memory like the taste of good food. The earliest food related memory I can think of is sitting beside my grandmother, while she gracefully moved around her kitchen, making traditional Sri Lankan string hoppers and coconut sambal for breakfast. At a guess I’d say I was around five years old. Preparing and steaming string hoppers was a time consuming business that required waking up before dawn while the rest of the household slept. Such was her devotion to feeding her family.

Now that I can no longer sit beside her, whenever I am around food I like to believe that she is beside me instead. So, it was wonderful to spend an entire week eating and drinking my way around Doha. The undeniable thing I learnt on this trip is that, as it was in my grandmother’s kitchen, traditional Qatari dishes of rice, fish and meat are always shared and you will be served more than you could ever eat. This is a perfect arrangement for me.

Gluttony and tradition aside, Doha itself is a cosmopolitan city with thousands of ex pats from across the globe calling it home. Their influence is everywhere from clothing to art but where it’s most evident is in the variety of food on offer. From Filipino tapa to Peruvian coffee – it’s all here. So it makes perfect sense that Doha would host an international food festival seven years in a row. It came as no surprise that over 20,000 people attended the festival this year. One of them happened to be me.

1. Qatar International Food Festival

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Set against the dramatic sky line and complete with giant watermelon Qatar International Food Festival took place from 29 March to 8 April on grounds of Sheraton Grand Doha. There were no less than 73 stalls ranging from food trolleys to food banks.

Street Food Anyone?

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I started Day One in the central zone because it drew me in with Italian pastries. There was also Turkish baklava, Indian street food and lo and behold – rocket lollies! Judging by the number of people holding them the most popular item appeared to be circle chips on a stick covered in ketchup – I guess you can’t keep a good thing down.

I was especially delighted to find a stall serving Faluda here. It’s a milkshake made of rose water, vanilla and tukmaria seeds served with cubed jelly bits and a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream (it’s all true, I promise) – a childhood favourite from Sri Lanka which, to date, can be bought in any street food shop with, Bombay or Sweet in its name.

Cooking Theatre

At the other end of the scale, there was a cooking theatre at QIFF with live demonstrations by big names such as Chef Marco Arlotti Teatro (Four Seasons, Doha), Chef Elias Gemayel (St. Regis Hotel, Doha) and Chef Erhan Ahacan (Marriott, Doha). The crowds FLOCKED to see the masters in action. For next year’s festival I highly recommend booking your seat early because it’s a free event and was immensely popular.

Hotel Park

The Hotel Park offered taster menus from luxury hotels. Four Seasons, W Hotel and Sheraton Grand took the opportunity to serve their five star dishes in bite size with prices to match. I thought it was a brilliant no frills way to get more people to taste your menu on the go.

The Evening

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All things considered, it was when the sun began to set that QIFF really came into itself. The after work crowd started to arrive in droves carrying mouthwatering picnics with them. The grass was covered in gingham blankets and there were children everywhere. Entertainers on stilts appeared handing out balloons and blowing giant bubbles. Play fountains and lights were turned on and the festival took on a carnival atmosphere. By the time I was ready to retire, around 9.30pm, QIFF was in full swing with no sign of anyone going home any time soon.

Food festivals in general are popular because they offer visitors a chance to experience food in a relaxed setting. QIFF is unique in that it brings together cultures and tastes but more importantly it brings PEOPLE together. They came from all walks of life with just one thing in common – the love of food.  As far as food festivals go, this one is not to be missed.

2. Dinner in the Sky

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The Experience

The second stop on my culinary journey was Dinner in the Sky. This is a 40 minute experience offered through QIFF and courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel. I and 21 other guests were strapped  to our seats using safety harnesses. Then guests and staff were all slowly raised 50 feet in the air as our three course meal was served.

For me at least, this was the best seat in the house. The panoramic view of Doha from this elevated position was unforgettable and the cool night air was a welcome relief from the heat. There was no dress code but everyone had dressed for dinner – formal dresses, crisp shirts and cleans shoes. There’s something to be said for dangling in the air dressed in evening attire. Dinner was served as soon as we began to lift off the ground. The table rotates as it lifts but does so gently that you can feel none of it. It’s surprisingly steady and eating at the same time was no challenge. I don’t suffer from vertigo nor have a fear of heights so I thoroughly enjoyed this experience. It was probably one of the most fun things I have done without risking my life.

The Food

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Four Seasons pulled out all the stops here, starting with a great lounge for pre-drinks on the ground. My smoked salmon tartar with dill cream starter was surreal. The grilled Angus beef tenderloin was served with baby vegetables and tyme jus – delicious! Desert was white chocolate passion fruit mousse with mango and raspberry coulis. I found the food as thrilling as the ride. A word of advice however – don’t drop your cutlery.

3. Idam 

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The final stop on my food journey was Idam. It’s Alain Ducasse’s first restaurant in the Middle East and is headed by Chef Damian Leroux. The Philip Stark designed interiors married French haute-cuisine and Arabic culture effortlessly. If great a view and food are your thing well, this is it. The Doha skyline flickered across the sea in the distance like a silent movie while we unfolded embroidered white linen across our laps ready for a sublime array of delights from the menu.

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The blue crab and mango salad starter followed by small spelt with asparagus was unforgettable. Mains of quick seared bonito fish, aubergines and cumin was a palatial dream. I savoured every bite and didn’t want it to end. Iranian pistachio souffle and pistachio ice cream followed. Every luxurious mouthful was akin to a breath of fresh air; light as a feather and divine on the tongue. If you are in Doha you must visit Idam. It is a triumph.

 

 

You can find more information on QIFF atQatar International Food Festival

Idam is located within the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha. You can find more information here – www.alain-ducasse.com

 

 

Desert Safari – Qatar.

Desert Safari

As if everything in Qatar wasn’t already cool enough, it is also here that I discovered the incredible adventure that is the desert safari.

So, on a Sunday morning, I joined a group of my fellow bloggers and travel writers to wait eagerly for Falcon Tours to carry us to our next adventure. We headed south, out of Doha, in two 4×4 vehicles accompanied by experienced desert drivers. After a quick mandatory stop to deflate tyres, in preparation for the conditions, we drove out and entered the desert.

(www.falcontoursqatar.com)

Landscape

As the landscape began to change dramatically the scenery overwhelmed me. The dunes rose above our heads and stood majestically against the horizon. There was little else as far as the eye could see. The sand curved, dipped and rose without warning. At times, the drops were near vertical and our 4×4 slid downwards, almost sideways.

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Trying to capture everything around me.

In some places, salt had deposited over the surface and glistened a shiny white. Elsewhere, rain from previous days had nurtured plants which burst through the sand. Then we hit an unforgivingly rocky surface and the jeep jolted over each rock. When I climbed outside, the coolness of the sand under my feet seemed contradictory against the lack of humidity in the air. By this point, I had felt waves of different emotions and we had spent less than an hour in the desert!

Camels Everywhere!

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Camel love.
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Wild camels

If that wasn’t enough, we then drove around scouring the horizon for wild camels. It was wonderful to watch our experienced guide navigate this harsh landscape which had no roads, signs or landmarks. Eventually, we spotted wild camels in the distance grazing peacefully. We drove up so close that we could almost touch one. In Arabic culture camels symbolise patience, tolerance and endurance. When you see these creatures in the wild it’s easy to understand why.

Desert Plants

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Recent rain had changed the landscape. Plants such as these covered large areas with still more tender shoots peeking out of the sand.

The Inland Sea.

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The Qatari desert also boasts an inland sea. If the desert is Qatar’s heart beat then THIS surely must be the jewel in its crown. It’s a hauntingly beautiful yet little known natural wonder. The desert and dunes surround the sea where Qatar separates from Saudi Arabia. It’s a beach like no other that I have ever seen. It will require all your energy to get here but I promise it will be worth it.

Regency Sealine Camp

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Our final stop was the Regency Sealine camp. It’s a beautiful place to rest and relax – a metaphorical oasis in the desert with tented cabanas, a restaurant and great staff. The restaurant served a mouth watering buffet of grilled meats and kabsa accompanied by vegetables, breads and fresh salads with dips. Sweet deserts and fresh fruit followed with plenty of Qatari sweet coffee – qahwa helw. Everything was colourful and full of flavour. The service was impeccable.

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After lunch, I did little but relax and take in the spectacular views. Most of all, following the bumpy ride and the intense experience in the desert it felt good to slow the pace down. The beach here is private so it was possible to walk along it in peaceful serenity.

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So, if I must conclude, this safari went beyond expectations. An intense 4×4 adventure combined with a sighting of wild camels and a mesmerising inland sea are more than I could have hoped for in the space of 2 hours! Finally arriving at an oasis of luxury where I could shower, eat, change and stroll along a quiet white sandy beach for the rest of the afternoon was the icing on the cake. It felt like I had kept my cake and eaten it too and when you get here you will know exactly what I mean.

(www.regencysealinecamp.com)

Arts and Culture in Qatar

The Fire Station Gallery, Doha.

A flourishing art scene may not be the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the Gulf state of Qatar. That however, is exactly what is happening in the Qatari capital of Doha. Artists, musicians and writers have come together in a converted fire station, in Wadi Al Sail, to work and collaborate.

In one gigantic acknowledgement of the role creativity and heritage plays in Qatar’s development, The Fire Station Gallery provides a contemporary space for resident artists to showcase their work.

My first stop on this cultural exploration of Doha was a visit to The Fire Station Gallery. At the time of my visit, it was host to the first exhibition of it’s kind in the Middle East; Over 120 works by Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti following the larger exhibition at the Musée National Picasso in Paris. It is an exceptional show in an avant-garde setting. Furthermore, it’s curated by Fondation Giacometti director Catherine Grenier and the pieces are on loan to Qatar from the Musée National Picasso, Fondation Giacometti and several international collections. Most importantly, the exhibition is free, making it accessible to everyone and runs until 21st May 2017.
(You can see my pictures of the exhibition at The Fire Station Gallery here:
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Fire Station Gallery, Doha.
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Brunch al fresco at Cafe 999, The Fire Station Gallery.

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha.

My second stop was the pièce de résistance of Doha – The Museum of Islamic Art. The building designed by Chinese American architect I. M. Pei is an astonishing ode to Muslim architecture and history. Arches, water features and geometric patterns central to Islamic design compliment punctured, sculptural light fixtures inside and outside. The building stands alone on an artificial peninsula and is surrounded by it’s own park.

Spectacular entrance to MIA
Museum of Islamic Art.
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Museum of Islamic Art.
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Museum of Islamic Art.

Inside, the museum is home to a collection of artefacts curated since the late 1980’s which includes manuscripts, textiles, metal work, ceramics, jewellery, wood work and glass. Art from Spain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, India and Central Asia dating from 7th – 19th century are displayed here making it one of the most complete collections of Islamic art in the world.

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Dagger and scabbard – India (1800)
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Qur’an and case – Iran (18th – 19th century).
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Jewelled falcon – India (circa 1640)
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Armour for horse and rider – Turkey (Late 15th century – early 16th century)

It was my first time in a museum of Islamic art and I found the artefacts breathtakingly beautiful. It is however, difficult to explain the vastness of this collection when it spans over 1400 years and collates objects from Persian, Mongolian and Ottoman empires. The MIA requires half a day at the very least if you are to do it justice and it will be time well spent as it is unlikely that you will see another collection of this size any where else.

At the end of the visit I couldn’t help feeling that Qatar’s arts and cultural development feels a great deal more homegrown and evidently more authentic. As I delved into this further, I found that this is owing to it’s museums being passionately spearheaded by it’s own ruling family. *Forbes magazine describes the head of the Qatar Museums Authority, Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, as “arguably the most powerful woman in the art world today”. As the person responsible for securing the purchase of the world’s most expensive painting (Paul Gauguin‘s When Will You Marry?) in 2015, the accolade is justly deserved. With such credentials Qatar’s cultural development should come as no surprise. It’s creating truly unforgettable experiences. Go see for yourself. I highly recommend them.

  • In collaboration with – Qatar Tourism Authority, Qatar Airways, The Sheraton Grand Doha, Qatar International Food Festival and Falcon Tours. 

www.visitqatar.qa,

www.qatarairways.com,

http://www.qifoodfestival.qa

http://www.sheratongranddoha.com

http://www.falcontours.com

*https://www.forbes.com/profile/sheikha-mayassa-al-thani/ (and Wikepedia)