A couple of months ago an American expatriate friend invited me to join her along with a women’s group that would be visiting several souks in Doha. A souk is an Arab marketplace, often open-air, selling everything imaginable, from spices, to kitchenware, children’s toys, electrical appliances, computers, colorful silk cloth, jewelry, camels and livestock, and so much more. Some souks sell a variety of different items and others a specific type of item like jewelry, vegetables, or computers and related equipment. Souks have been around for thousands of years in the Arab world, and historically caravans with goods and materials bought and sold from one another and the nearby townspeople, and even bartered for goods. Souks were also a place where festivals and various social and cultural functions were held, including poetry readings and general storytelling sessions.
On this particular occasion, against the backdrop of a spring-like sunny Doha day, we would be visiting the Omani, Vegetable, and Fish Souks, all within walking distance of each other and located in the southwest of the city off of Salwa Road and Wholesale Market Street. The Omani souk, reportedly so-called because many of its goods are imported from nearby Oman, sells quite a hodgepodge of items such as desert truffles, dates, plant pots, watermelon, pomegranate, lemongrass, bamboo, flowers, bushes, palm trees, coconut, baskets, garden materials, and a small assortment of dried fish. Since it was Tuesday (a weekday), the Omani souk was not overly crowded, just a spattering of Qatari and other Arab men, and a couple of women from northern Africa in intricately designed cotton cloth body wraps. This, in contrast to early morning Fridays, a weekend and religious day, when the specialty souks, in particular, are abuzz with customers on the lookout for the freshest vegetables, fruit, and fish, and negotiating the best deals with vendors.
Our first stop at the Omani souk was a desert truffles stand; the vendors were of Southeast Asian origin (from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Pakistan), which is typical of souks in the Arabian Gulf region. Not being one who is terribly interested in cooking (or anything that has to do with the kitchen, for that matter), I had always thought truffles were chocolates; I had no idea they were a form of funghi!
Several of the women were interested in purchasing a box of truffles and splitting the cost and contents amongst themselves. Although this was a group comprised largely of western women, they were only too aware of the obligatory art of bargaining that accompanies any purchase in a souk. Several of the women held their ground, as did the vendor, who ultimately left the women empty-handed as the vendor was clearly more interested in haggling over the truffles at individual rates rather than selling them at a reduced bulk rate.
Truffles (or mushrooms) found in the forests of Europe are superior in aroma, taste, and texture to desert truffles, however, according to a Saudi friend, the reason desert truffles are expensive in the Arab Gulf these days is mostly nostalgia based. My friend divulged that people in the Arabian Peninsula used to cook desert truffles as a substitute for meat, which was prohibitively expensive 50 plus years ago. At the time, most people of the Arab Gulf had red meat (mutton or camel) no more than a dozen times a year, hence the popularity of desert truffles found under the sand for free, which reminded Gulf Arabs of the texture of meat, (along with some imagination).
The women and I shuffled on to a nearby stand, which included a variety of dates. Having lived in the Arabian Peninsula since late 2000, I’ve become acutely aware of the significance of dates in this region and the different ways they can be prepared. Dates are grown in four stages, including kimri (unripe), khalal (crunchy and fully grown), rutab (ripe and soft), and tamr (ripe and sun-dried). The tamr dates may even be compressed in a container made of the palm tree “leaves” and left to age for some time. I cannot count the times I’ve been served dates along with cardamom coffee in Arab friends’ homes, (a common form of Arab hospitality), usually in rutab or tamr form, sometimes with the pit replaced with an almond or sprinkled with bits of sesame seed. While important, culturally, to the larger Arab population, date palms are actually a critical part of the desert Bedouin’s diet, who could survive harsh desert conditions for months consuming dates and water alone. During Ramadan the fast is broken by eating dates, which are rich in vitamins and minerals. Dates are also used for medicinal purposes, as a Qatari friend told me that when she was a child her mother used a mixture of heated tamr dates with olive oil as a compress for a twisted ankle.
The Omani Souk is contained in an open warehouse, and besides truffles and dates includes an assortment of ceramic and clay pots in a variety of hues with some lovely engravings; straw hats and colorful woven baskets; plastic bags of dried sardines; and a small collection of fruits including watermelon, coconut, pomegranate (a favorite of mine), sweet potatoes, and what my Lebanese husband, Bishara, calls “green cherries” (otherwise known as “janarik,” which are unripened plums). As a child in Jordan and Lebanon, Bishara used to eat “green cherries,” which look like miniature green apples and are sour-tasting, with a dousing of salt. The predominant items in the Omani Souk seem to be flowers and other leafy plants, ranging from daisies, to hydrangeas, sunflowers, chrysanthemums, pansies, and the odd bonsai tree.
The Vegetable Souk, right next door to the Omani souk, sports a large array of vegetables and some fruit, (mostly imported from Lebanon and Syria), such as tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers, squash, garlic, red and yellow peppers, red and green grapes, bananas, oranges, kiwi, pears, plums, apricots, squash, robbi (turnip), pineapple, strawberries, and purple and white eggplant (which I had never heard of before). A young Egyptian woman in our group said she wanted to buy some eggplant, as she would be making Mahshee, stuffed eggplant with rice and onion, for dinner. Although my newfound Egyptian friend disclosed that white eggplant is actually more tender and tastier than the purple version, she would be using the purple eggplant, which is the traditional ingredient in Mahshee. The Vegetable Souk is heavily populated with men, usually of Southeast Asian origin like the vendors, who will assist you with your purchases by placing them in a wheelbarrow or rolling platform and follow you around, even taking your haul to the car and unloading your purchases for you. Of course, a small tip is appreciated.
We eventually moved on to the Fish Market, a mix of sights, sounds, and smells (many not so pleasant), and quite a variety of fish with a convenient cleaning/gutting service. Qatar shares a short border with Saudi Arabia to its south and its remaining three sides are surrounded by the Arabian Gulf waters, hence the abundance of fresh fish. Fish available in Qatar includes, but is not limited to, Hammour (Grouper), Sherri, Prawns, Blue Crabs, Kanad (or Kingfish), Squid, and White Pomfret, and Sultan Ibrahim (Red Mullet). The mention of Sultan Ibrahim later that evening brought back sentimental memories for my husband, Bishara, of the wonderful occasions during his childhood in southern Lebanon when his mother fried this special fish enjoyed by the entire family while Bishara’s father smoked sheesha and drank arak on the back patio of their home in the mountains. I found the blue crabs dazzling, and knew they were indigenous to the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia having had many of these delectable delights in soft shell form (another favorite) when we were living in the Washington, DC area, but was surprised to find out they were also caught in the Arabian Gulf. The Fish Market was a real treat and is now a favorite destination where we regularly purchase fresh Hammour and Sherri, which we love to grill on weekend evenings.
Grilled Hammour (Grouper) Recipe:
- 250 g hamour fillet
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
- ½ teaspoon dried tarragon
- salt and pepper
- 200 g potatoes, boiled
- 150 g green peas, boiled
- 20 g fresh mint leaves, chopped
- 50 ml milk
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 teaspoonfresh parsley, chopped
- 1 pinch nutmeg
- Mix lemon juice, olive oil, ginger-garlic paste, tarragon herb, salt and pepper to make a marinade.
- Marinate the hammour fillet in this for a few hours or overnight for best results.
- Grill it over the charcoal griller.
- Saute garlic in butter.
- Toss mint and greenpeas in it.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Mash grated potatoes in a pan.
- Add milk, butter, salt, pepper and nutmeg gradually until creamy in texture.
- Finish off with cream and parsley.
- Arrange the grilled hammour in the centre of your serving plate.
- Serve hot with salad and other accompaniments such as lemon butter sauce.