Doha’s Souq Waqif looks like something from another century. There’s been an open market at that spot for at least a hundred years and the past decade of renovations imitating the old style of Persian Gulf architecture add to its rustic flavor. “The Souq” is at once a tried and true shopping destination for locals, while also serving as a tourist trap for out of towners; the marketplace has traditional spice vendors and artisans but also a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and kisoks selling overpriced camel statuettes with “Made In China,” stamped on the bottom. Putting all of the extremes aside, there’s nothing more authentically Gulf than a traditional shisha cafe like Eshariq.
The air in Doha is dense and fragrant. It’s an incens-y, musky smell that sticks to your clothes and invades the nostrils; imagine taking a deep whiff of the inside of Indiana Jones’ hat and there you have that Doha smell. Eshariq Café sits at the souq’s entrance and has an upper level perfect for people-watching and enjoying shisha in the evening air as the warm, tasty smoke from a flavored tobacco pipe complements, or perhaps camoflages, the authentic funk of the Gulf. Shisha flavors range from the simple and tasty (strawberry, apple, watermelon) to the surprisingly yummy (chickpea, hibiscus, wood). Only slightly stranger was the menu of snacks – what could I try that would let me experience local culture while still avoiding the local microbes?
I’d passed on horsemeat in Italy, on silkworm larvae in Korea, and on the poisonous fugu fish in Japan. The food in Doha was nowhere near as challenging but way more ambiguous; the English translations of menu items at Eshariq Café were haphazard blurbs like “steamed meat,” “vegetables and broth,” or “stew.” I pointed at a dish listed as “porridge,” and asked our guide Mohammed how to pronounce it.
“Mathrooba,” he said. “It’s really, really good. Traditional. You’ve probably had it before without knowing it.”
“Mathrooba, it is,” I answered.
Mohammed was right in a way – just about every culture has a porridge of its own. Throw some meat and some grains into a pot and cook it with some spices until it takes the least visually appetizing form possible, just like mother would make. So simple, yet such an international staple that I figured I couldn’t go wrong. And mathrooba is so, so right.
Like anything called porridge, mathrooba is a steamy lump of brownish grayish gruel. It’s hot, meaty, hearty, and healthy-tasting. Without exaggeration, it is one of the yummiest things I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating, one of those foods that you think about after having gone to bed that night and engineer the rest of your life around trying to have again. After my first time trying mathrooba I raved about how delicious it was to some Qatari women, one of which was so glad that I was impressed by a local dish that she brought me a tray of her version the next day. Still delicious the second time.
In a desperate final gesture to keep mathrooba in my life, I asked this woman for her recipe. I quickly learned that it’s one of those dishes that every Qatari woman knows how to make but has never used a written recipe for and can only explain in the most general terms. Boil a chicken and then use the leftover water to cook a bunch of rice. Take the meat off of the chicken’s bones and put the carcass in new water, then boil that for a few hours. Take the chicken carcass out of the water and boil some onions and celery in it. Add some “chicken spice,” and “Arabic spice,” mix everything together, and simmer it some more. Hunh? There are more ingredients, more adding of unheard of spices and trading off of stocks. On and on, vaguer and vaguer, until creating the simplest dish becomes a culinary set of extremely delicious Russian babushka dolls. This process only takes place in the exact mathrooba way the country of Qatar. So since then I’ve waited and hoped, thinking about Doha when the American summer heat gets too musty to bear without a shisha.