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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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