Our western expatriate friends in the Arabian Peninsula seem to love all things Turkish – the food, the country, the culture! Due to the proximity of the country – Istanbul, Turkey is only 1,690 miles (2,720 kilometers), or three and a half flying hours, away from Doha, Qatar, many expatriates in the Gulf region arrange for holidays to this alluring nation. The comments you frequently hear are, “Oh, the Blue Mosque is stunning,” or “The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is the best, and most extensive market, I’ve ever seen!” We’ve even had expatriate friends who have been interested in acquiring properties in Turkey after holiday visits. Often called the gateway between East and West, Turkey is bordered by Greece and Bulgaria on the European side, and by Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria on the Middle Eastern/Asian side. The history of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire is rich and far-reaching. The Ottoman Empire was massive, encompassing portions of Asia, North Africa, and Eastern Europe at its height, and stretched from 1299 to 1923, making it one of the longest running empires in history.
Although Ottoman influence in the Arab Gulf endured (in varying degrees) from the 16th century through the early 20th century, one of the more notable connections between the Arabian Peninsula and the Ottoman Empire surrounds the construction of the Hejaz rail line. In the early 1900’s the Ottomans built the Hejaz railway line, which connected Damascus and Medina, a holy site, in the Arabian Peninsula. This addition provided an extension to the existing railway line running from Istanbul to Damascus, thereby allowing greater movement of Turkish military troops, food and supplies into the Arabian Gulf region. The Hejaz rail line, which began its service in 1913 was meant not only to consolidate political and commercial control of the Arab Gulf by the Ottoman nation, but it also helped transport Muslims to the holy cities of Medina and Mecca (in present day Saudi Arabia). By 1914, however, World War I was underway, and Ottoman rule began to deteriorate. By 1917 to 1918, Lawrence of Arabia (T.E. Lawrence) was directing attacks of Arab forces against the Turks, with a central focus on blowing up sections of the Hejaz railway line in an effort to halt the flow of food, supply and Turkish troops into the Peninsula. Lawrence’s undertaking led to the destruction of the railway line, which thwarted the advancement of supplies and Turkish troops, thereby allowing the British navy to enter Red Sea ports along the west coast of Arabia helping to hasten the end of Ottoman rule and World War I.
Nowadays, Turkish influence in the Arab Gulf is confined to cuisine and cultural exchanges. Turkish soap operas are a major craze in the general region, and are particularly popular among Gulf nationals. Our Arab friends were especially enamored with the Turkish soap, “Noor,” an intriguing series about the arranged marriage, and love story, of the main characters, Noor and Muhannad, (an attractive blonde-haired, blue-eyed heir to a successful business conglomerate). The serial was translated from Turkish into Arabic and kept its audience (entire families normally) glued to their television screens in the evening hours that it aired. Besides television fare, it’s always a cultural treat to see whirling dervishes in their brightly colored and billowing garb during Ramadan Iftar events at the big hotels in Doha, and sipping fragrant Turkish coffee in delicate demitasse cups is a favorite pastime in the Arab world, primarily outside the Arab Gulf. Although not a big coffee fan, I love Turkish coffee, and we always have some of this exquisite blend in stock in our home. We could run out of food or other important staples, but my husband would never let us run out of Turkish coffee!
But the real rage across the Arab Peninsula for expatriates, and nationals alike, is Turkish food. When we moved to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in November 2000, we had barely unpacked our suitcases before we were introduced to Assaraya Turkish restaurant, located within the heart of the city in the Olaya district. The smoky-flavored babaganoush; parsley-rich tabouli; chicken shwarmas with fries, pickles and garlic mayo; topped off with freshly baked bread with sesame seeds were to die for. We frequented this restaurant either in person, or to retrieve “take out” meals, more than any other when we lived in the Kingdom. Assaraya restaurant was always the “go to” restaurant when we gathered with our western expatriate friends; I think many of us had the phone number on speed dial.
While Assaraya restaurant had a simple and rather “homey” ambience, along with terrific food, and inexpensive prices, Turkey Central restaurant in Doha, Qatar where we now reside has excellent cuisine, modest prices, and very little atmosphere. Turkey Central on Al Nasr Street, however, is one of the most popular restaurants, among expatriates and nationals in Qatar for a casual, yet substantial, meal. While the expatriates tend to dine in the spartan family section upstairs and share feasts of chicken and cheese fatayer, meat kabobs and kofta, along with mixed maza and filtered yogurt, the nationals have been known to streamline the process by parking outside the front door and honking for curbside service.
If you live in Qatar, or are visiting, and are interested in a more refined Turkish dining experience, and you don’t mind somewhat higher prices, Sukar Pasha (Ottoman Lounge), in Katara Cultural Village, is a superb choice, particularly from an ambience point of view. The restaurant is very quiet during the noon-time and afternoon hours, although I do understand that they recently began serving lunch from 12:00 noon to 3:00 PM. This is an especially nice time to relax, have a mixed fresh fruit cocktail, and be treated to stunning views of the Arabian Sea.
Sukar Pasha has distinctive glassed-in rooms with plush and ample cushions and a separate door that opens to the sea view, which is particularly conducive to smoking fruit flavored sheesha and having private, intimate chit-chat. The sheesha, though, is quite pricey at QAR 100 (equivalent to USD 27). Dinner hours are from 6:30 PM to 12:00 midnight, and one can dine inside in elegant surroundings or outside in a more casual yet festive setting.
Sukar Pasha sports exotic Ottoman-style chandeliers, opulent hand-painted ceilings (including one ceiling section with a stunning inverted dome), tiled floors highlighted with extravagant golden swirls, and miniature and massive paintings displaying the various sultans as well as tales of the Ottoman empire. Even the restrooms have the feel of the famous Turkish baths (or hammams) with blue tiled mosaics and large paintings depicting the luxuriant Ottoman lifestyle.
Meals begin with homemade Pickled Beet Root (Pancar Tursusu) or Mastabe (yogurt, chard leaves, mint, and garlic), both selections from the “Cold Mezze” portion of the menu. Or if you prefer the “Warm Mezze,” you might select Beef Tongue (Dana Dili Haslama) or my favorite Mixed Turkish Pide (pide being similar to pita bread, but without the pouch), which is rather like a Turkish pizza with spinach, pastirma (cured beef, similar to pastrami), and cheese. Main courses range from Kuru Fasulye – Pilav Cacik, which is broiled white beans with pastirma, Turkish rice, and cacik (diluted yogurt); to Chicken Yidegor – Tavuk Yidegor, or charcoal Chicken Kofta, with bulgur balls, yogurt and tomato, and Skewered Lamb (Kuzu Sis). The evening is topped off with Roasted Sweet Pumpkin, or Semolina Hulviyyat (roasted pine nuts and semolina with cinnamon sherbet and mastic ice cream).
Pomegranate Bulgur Pilaf Recipe (Nar Bulgur Pilavı) [from: http://www.turkishcookbook.com/]
1/2 cup bulgur, large grain, washed and drained (Turkish bulgar, if possible)
1 cup hot water
1 medium onion, sliced
5-6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp red pepper taste
1 tsp red pepper taste, hot
1/3 cup Pomegranate
Saute the onion with olive oil for about 2-3 minutes. Add the tomato and red pepper pastes, salt and pepper. Continue to sauté for about 3-4 more minutes. Then add the bulgur and warm water, put the lid on. Close the lid and continue to cook until the bulgur is done, i.e, when all the liquid has evaporated at low heat.
Garnish with pomegranate. Serve the Pomegranate Bulgur Pilav
Creamy Yogurt by the side.