By Javier Picazo Feliu
Doha, Nov 4 (EFE).- From madrouba rice to the national dish machboos to local regag crepes and marguga stew, tradition, ancient recipes and spices collide in Qatar’s contemporary cuisine.
Qatar’s gastronomy is a journey through the desert and sea and the legacy of a community that is receptive to novel influences.
“Qatari cuisine is a lovely experience. It has lots of flavor, lots of spices. Every dish has its own unique recipe. When you try them they are never the same, so you have to try everything,” Noor al Mazroei, a chef and well known expert of Qatari cuisine, tells Efe.
The chef catapulted to stardom when she started sharing her recipes online, gaining a solid fanbase.
“I became a chef by trying and learning from my mistakes. It was a passion. I started at home and then sharing my recipes on social media. After that, I started working with restaurants more and by starting small, getting bigger,” she says.
Noor has been cooking since she was a child, with her grandmother, but in contrast to her humble origins these days she can be spotted on Instagram (@noor_almazroei) meandering through the Qatari bazaar with David Beckham or on a cooking show with some of the best chefs in the world.
Her secrets are: creativity, a respect for traditions and hard work.
“I don’t want to transform the Qatari food or change the Qatari food, I want to provide options. When you have events like the World Cup, there are people who are vegan, gluten-free, or vegetarian, so everyone deserves to try the Qatari food. That’s why I like to provide alternatives to Qatari food. So, if you want to try a specific dish, you can find it in any way you want,” she adds.
When it comes to cooking, Noor always considers flavor, texture, presentation and creating something unique, without neglecting tradition.
“My goal is to make healthy Qatari food. Food has to be for everyone,” she says.
It is a passion that stems from the difficulties she has encountered in sourcing eateries for her celiac daughter, who cannot eat gluten and which is used in almost all regional food.
“It was a kind of discrimination,” she muses.
“Our traditional food usually has meat or chicken or fish. Vegan is something that is not that much in our recipes. So we can do the same rice dish, we can do it with the same flavors and spices, because our secrets are the spices, but we will do it vegan. We can take the chicken and put something nice, we can choose any kind of vegetable we love and we can provide it without sacrificing the taste,” she notes.
Noor has her own version of madrouba (rice simmered with milk, cardamom or chicken, among other ingredients) where she swaps meat and rice for oatmeal and spinach.
She also makes a healthier version of machboos (Qatar’s national food, a flavorful rice dish with chicken, beef or camel meat) which she seasons with a secret ingredient: bezar.
“Bezar is a mix of spices. It has coriander, cardamon, black pepper, salt… everyone has their own mix. It is something unique that we use in machboos,” she adds.
In traditional Qatari food, sharing is the norm. Highlights include, small crunchy dumplings filled with vegetables, meat or cheese such as samboosa, chickpea falafel, hummus, a mix of grilled meats called kofta, or regag, which are crepes with cream cheese, fruit, vegetables or chocolate.
But for Noor the key is “doing what you love makes you special, because what you do from your heart can reach the people. Work hard, love what you do and do it for the people.”
Her attitude has conquered millions of hearts.
She runs a charming cafe near the city center, the Blended Cafe, which offers homemade sweets and healthy dishes, although her dream is to open a restaurant one day.
“I would like to have an international restaurant with all kinds of cuisine, the important thing for me is a restaurant that provides the need for all people. That anyone, with any kind of allergy can sit back and enjoy their meal,” she concludes.
LEGACY OF TRADITIONAL CUISINE
“You have to start from scratch, is the only way to appreciate anything,” Shams Al-Qassabi, one of the most empowered and respected women in Qatar, tells Efe.
Shams dreamt of being a cook and making unique sauces.
Her culinary journey started when she would grate lemons from her farm to make condiments for her neighbors to raise enough money to pitch up at a trade fair in 2001 where she shared her recipes and spice mixes.
Word of her delicious sauces soon spread across the capital and Shams decided to flout the rules and fight for equality until she achieved it.
In 2004 she became the first female entrepreneur in the country by opening a small cafe with a shop in the Doha souk, an unthinkable prospect at the time.
What started with six tables over time became a restaurant for nearly 300 clients.
The small and affordable cafe has become the most reputable traditional Qatari cuisine restaurant in the country, and it also has its own shop that stocks her renowned spices and sauces.
Al-Qassabi is now famous.
Photographs of the Qatari royal family, soccer players, singers, international leaders decorate the cafe’s walls.
The Shay Al-Shmous restaurant has become an unmissable stop for tourists and locals alike.
Like its owner, it is a humble place where you can savor the country’s traditional delicacies.
“The authenticity of the food comes from our ancestors. It is all soul and how you prepare it and, of course, the spices, each house does it in a different way, but deep down it is all a matter of love,” the entrepreneur tells Efe.
According to the chef, nothing plunges you into an authentic culinary experience like a typical Qatari brunch of nakhee (chickpeas), regag (savory and sweet pancakes), bajelah (beans in sauce), balaleet baid (a sweet with pasta and eggs) or marguga (veal with bezar and Iranian breadcrumbs), all washed down with a glass of Karak, a sweet cardamom tea.
Shams smiles and her face lights up when she talks about her past and she recalls her achievements.
Before her interview with Efe, she says goodbye to Andrea Pirlo, a legendary Italian ex-soccer player with whom she has been visiting the souk.
But when asked to choose her favorite celebrity, she answers quickly, David Beckham.
“He is well known and an honor to have had him in my restaurant. He is very humble, polite and from the moment he walked in the door he did so with a smile, eating non-stop and being grateful. He took my spices to cook for his wife. He has it all,” she gushes.