Wonders of Vietnam: Hanoi

Living and working in the Arab Gulf has afforded my husband and me some remarkable travel opportunities, including a visit to the incredible Vietnam.


“You’ve got to be kidding,” I responded, incredulously.  “Why would you want to go to Vietnam for vacation?”  My husband, Bishara, and I were having breakfast, a time often reserved for airing a variety of issues, planning for upcoming activities, and such.  Not to say that the idea of vacationing in Vietnam had not been broached before by my husband.  For the last several years, Bishara has, on occasion, garnered the courage to advance the notion, which I have always, not so indelicately, struck down.  Living in the Arab Gulf, Saudi Arabia in the early 2000’s, and Qatar for the last nine and a half years, has afforded us some remarkable travel opportunities, which we have taken full advantage of.  We have particularly appreciated the relative convenience of visiting Southeast Asia, and have had the good fortune of travelling to Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia.  Our time in each of these countries has been nothing short of wondrous and life enriching.

Vietnam, in my mind, however, was a different story.  America had fought a contentious war there, and had lost.  Etched in memories of my 1960’s childhood were the nightly airings of the frontline battles on our family TV, against a backdrop of lush tropical settings, ubiquitous rice paddies, and the fallen being transported by comrades to waiting medical helicopters.  This was definitely not a favored vacation destination.  Bishara, who had been watching the same images on TV as a child halfway around the world in Jordan, had a more visceral reaction to the scenes.  Having experienced warfare, first-hand, in Jordan and later in Lebanon’s civil war, Bishara felt more empathy for, and a personal connectedness to, the war weary on both sides of the conflict.

My resolve began to dissolve several months ago when I began hearing reports from expatriate friends who had visited Vietnam and revealed that this country on the Indochina Peninsula was a captivating place with magnificent scenery, a rich history, and sumptuous food.  So maybe there was something to Bishara’s penchant for vacationing in Vietnam.  I began doing the research and determined that while there were many travel plan options when in the country, the north had the mountains, diverse ethnic groups, and an intriguing history.  A plan was developing, and we eventually settled on a 10-day trip in early April with Hanoi as home base, and side trips to include a cruise on Halong Bay (to the east of Hanoi) and Sapa, a picturesque mountain town in the northeast of the country.

Bishara divulged when we were back in Qatar about having prayed on the plane ride to Hanoi that expectations would be met on this trip, as he had not wanted to haul me to Vietnam under false pretenses.  Although the tread on the luggage carousel broke, and we had to wait over an hour for our bags to arrive at the Hanoi Airport, our luck definitely improved after leaving baggage claim.  The driver who would take us to the hotel was just outside, placard in hand with our names prominently displayed.  The young man swiftly brought our luggage, which practically swallowed up his slight frame, to a waiting van, and though he spoke virtually no English, afforded us wonderful views of the bustling city of Hanoi and its outskirts as he drove us to our hotel in the heart of the “Old Quarter.”


Motor scooters of Hanoi.


Many tall, narrow buildings in Hanoi.


Blurs of small trucks, scooters, and women wearing conical straw hats working the rice paddies off the highway began crystalizing into alluring tall, narrow buildings hinting of French colonialism with flowered balconies and wrought iron railings, more scooters, and quaint tree-lined streets, as we entered Hanoi’s Old Quarter.  We were already enamored.


Alleyway of our hotel.


Within an hour we arrived at our accommodations, the Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel, located in a lovely and active alleyway in the middle of the Old Quarter.  A porter and several representatives of the hotel came outside, warmly welcomed us, and all helped to expedite the movement of our luggage from the car into the boutique hotel.  Once inside, we were offered wet cloth towels to freshen ourselves, fruit juice, and suggestions on sites of interest and dining options in Hanoi.  Before we knew it, the porter nabbed our luggage and began running up five flights of stairs, while we rode the diminutive elevator with a hotel receptionist.  When Bishara expressed concern over the porter carrying our unwieldy luggage up all those stairs, the receptionist casually predicted that the porter would beat us to the fifth floor; and he was right.

Our room was designated “VIP,” however, in style and design, only.  Cost was merely average by American standards.  Spacious, with hardwood floors, beautiful finishings and furnishings in the Vietnamese style, red flower petals scattered on the bed, a balcony, and complimentary bottle of wine, the room was exceedingly comfortable.


VIP Room at Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel



Complimentary wine.


View from balcony.

View from balcony.

After settling in, Bishara and I headed downstairs, anxious to sample Vietnamese cuisine and Hanoi’s Old Quarter.  The Old Quarter’s patchwork of roads and alleyways (originally 36 streets) are nearly 1,000 years old, and emerged from a series of working villages, each plying a specific trade.  Some streets harbor the same trades as centuries ago, like sheet-metal and tin materials; others have changed to focus on items like bamboo or electrical merchandise; and still others are a hodgepodge of different offerings, from t-shirts and dessert sweets, to hair salons and spas.  These days, motor scooters are everywhere, in the streets and rows upon rows parked on the sidewalks, oftentimes limiting the space for walking, but somehow lending to the chaotic charm of the place.


Scooters everywhere!

The reception desk had recommended Quan An Ngon restaurant for a traditional Vietnamese meal, and since it was not an easy walk, a taxi service was called.  Two hotel business cards were handed to us with the receptionist stressing that the card would come in handy when returning to the hotel.  Slipping into the waiting taxi, I told the driver we were going to the Quan An Ngon restaurant.  Dead silence.  Again, Bishara this time; “We are going to Quan An Ngon restaurant.”  Not a sound.  Fifteen minutes later, the driver stopped and pointed, unceremoniously, to the right.  “Ah, this must be the restaurant,” I remarked.  It would become apparent that Hanoi taxi drivers rarely spoke English; evidently, the hotel had spoken with the driver, or taxi service, about where we would be dining.  Looking out for our welfare and that of other hotel guests was an enduring priority; always carried out, though, in a most understated and unpretentious manner.


Quan An Ngon restaurant.



Two of our cheery servers at Quan An Ngon restaurant.

Two of our cheery servers at Quan An Ngon restaurant.

Entering through the open wrought iron gates of Quan An Ngon restaurant was like being transported to a festive fusion of one part open air garden, one part bustling marketplace.  I hesitated over sitting at a communal table preferring, instead, a private table, however, there were no private tables available, so we sat alongside Europeans at a long public table.  In time, a single lady from the Netherlands joined us, and the camaraderie that ensued certainly enhanced our evening.

A happy spirit and wonderful ambience permeated Quan An Ngon.  Several smiling and amiable servers approached our table and patiently deciphered meal items from the menu.  The suggested choices included Vietnamese fried pancakes (bánh xèo), pork soup with noodles (Bánh canh Trảng Bàng), and barbecue pork (thịt nướng).  We must have looked a bit hapless, since a couple of servers, pulling plastic gloves over their hands, came bounding over when we received our food, and proceeded to show us how those “in the know” eat traditional Vietnamese meals.  And there is definitely an apropos technique for most entrees, which involves combining repast elements using chopsticks, of course.  The bánh xèo was the most complicated to assemble; the process beginning with the server placing mixed greens (fresh mint, parsley, spinach, lettuce, and cilantro) on a thin rice patty.  Next, a crispy rice patty is folded up and positioned over the greens, and bits of pork and shrimp are arranged on top.  The server then showed us how to roll up the original rice patty with the mixings and dip it into special Vietnamese fish sauce.

Bishara and I practiced several times, and eventually became semi-proficient at assembling the various elements of bánh xèo, however, we were much more accomplished at consuming the final product, a flavorful and crunchy mix that was absolutely delectable.  The Bánh canh Trảng Bàng (pork noodle soup) was equally as savory, although the necessary prerequisites for “chowing down” were much simpler; a side bowl of mixed greens are occasionally pilfered and nudged into the soup for a refreshing and tangy taste.  We also enjoyed an order of fresh spring rolls wrapped in lettuce leaves and thịt nướng (grilled barbecue pork), however, the latter was a bit too spicy for me.  We topped our meal off with a highly palatable plate of fried bananas in coconut milk.  We had been told by Canadian expatriate friends who had visited the country the previous year that the American dollar ruled in Vietnam, however, we were still taken aback when our bill was 190,000 Vietnamese dong, or just under 9 U.S. dollars.  Our meals in Vietnam rarely exceeded five U.S. dollars.

The hotel business card did, indeed, come in handy on our ride home.  Once again, the taxi driver spoke not a word of English, but nodded enthusiastically when he read the name of our hotel on the card.  We weaved through streets filled with scooters, cyclos, pedestrians, and Hundai cars all miraculously avoiding collisions, a low din of honking filling the air.  As soon as he spotted us, the hotel porter rushed out to open our car door, and graciously walked with us to a nearby market stall when he heard we needed to purchase bottles of water; we are water fiends, especially when on vacation.


Shoulder pole vendor in Hanoi.

On the way back to the hotel, a woman with a shoulder pole selling a variety of household wares and trinkets, motioned to me and inquired with hand signals if I was interested in a hair clip.  I, naively, sampled a sparkly hair clip, and the lady immediately said “one million dong.”  My jaw dropped.  I couldn’t quite get used to carrying millions in our pockets and we had not paid nearly so much for anything, so far.  Although one million dong equates to a mere $ 49, this was only a plastic hair clip.  Sensing my hesitation, the lady retorted, “five-hundred thousand.”  In normal circumstances, a 50 percent drop in price would seem reasonable, however, even the porter was perturbed by the vendor’s nerve.  Some clipped words were exchanged between porter and vendor, and the porter motioned for us to follow him to the hotel.

Hanoi, dripping with buoyant rhythm and a joyful soul, easily exceeded expectations.  We looked forward to boarding the Paradise cruise ship for a three day/two night journey on Halong Bay the next day, and returning to Hanoi in the next few days.


Arabic Lesson # 4: Turkish Coffee

My first trip to the Middle East was Christmastime 1996.  We had spent a couple of days in Amman, Jordan and were headed for Beirut, Lebanon where my husband’s mother, sister, and a multitude of cousins lived.  When we arrived at my mother-in-law’s home, my husband, Bishara, and I were greeted warmly with hugs and kisses, along with pots of stuffed lamb intestines and grape leaves, kibbie (burgle with raw meat), malfoof (stuffed cabbage), and homemade hommous.  We were told there was more where that came from, including kusa (stuffed squash), falafel, shakreiha (lamb with rice, pine nuts, and laban), tabouli, fattoush, and other specially prepared dishes for our visit, in the neighboring friends’ refrigerators.  The very first thing we consumed, though, in the tidy and colorful sitting room squeezed full of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends was flavorful Turkish coffee.  And the Turkish coffee didn’t stop flowing for the entire ten days we were in Beirut and the surrounding towns.  While a guest may be offered Nescafe (milk with Nescafe and sugar) or tea in small clear glasses, Turkish coffee is the drink of choice in non-Gulf Arab countries like Lebanon and Jordan.  (In Qatar and other Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, “Arabic coffee” is quite different in taste and texture, combining cardamom and saffron with ground coffee.)  I will be writing about “Arabic coffee,” (cardamom coffee), in a future post.    

Grinder belonging to Bishara's mother.

Grinder belonging to Bishara’s mother.

While in Lebanon, Bishara related to me that when he was a child in Jordan and Lebanon (in the summers) his mother bought raw coffee beans originating from Brazil at the local grocer’s for her Turkish coffee.  The beans, still green, were placed in a roaster on a portable stand on the stove and manually rotated by Bishara’s mother until they were a deep, dark brown.  A manual grinder with a drawer was used to pulverize the roasted beans into a finely ground powder.  These days, however, you find beans already roasted and ground in coffee shops across Lebanon and Jordan.

I had become familiar with Turkish coffee during the 17 years Bishara and I lived in the Washington, DC area and in the two years before we had shared together as students at the University of Florida.  I had fond memories of my husband in our Charleston-style home in the suburbs of DC huddled over our kitchen stove on a Saturday morning, teaspoon in hand, nursing the foam from the fine grounds of Turkish coffee bubbling up in the small aluminum container (bakraj or ibrik) seated on the edge of the heating element.

Bishara and I would regularly visit the Mediterranean Bakery in Alexandria, Virginia, a short distance from where we lived, to buy the grounds for our Turkish coffee.  We would roam the aisles of the small, family-owned, store behind a mini-grocery cart we would fill with canned chick peas, zahter (powdered thyme), pine nuts, labneh (similar to sour cream), hommous, and babaganoush, while the aroma of cardamom, freshly baked pita bread, and fruit flavored tobacco wafted through the air.  Soon after arriving at the Mediterranean Bakery we would order fresh fatayer with spinach, cheese, and labneh at the back counter, and our last task before leaving the store would always be to have coffee beans ground for the makings of Turkish coffee.  Endorphins surged as the scent of the pestled beans drifted along my nasal canals while we watched the store owner skillfully grind the roasted beans into a pan and pour them in a small brown plastic bag for us to take home.

Parties at our home in the northern Virginia suburbs would be replete with tablah drumming by Bishara, belly dancing, Lebanese mezzah, and Turkish coffee.  Oftentimes, Bishara would read the thick coffee grounds lurking in the bottom of demitasse cups to our guests’ delight, a skill my husband gleaned from his grandmother when he lived in southern Lebanon as a young child.  I’m not a big believer in reading tea leaves, tarot cards and fortune telling, but Bishara does have a gift for keying into people’s auras.  (Bishara always reminds me, though, that he is not nearly as good at reading Turkish coffee grounds as his sister.)  Each swirl, image, or clumping of grounds denotes a significant event in the past, present, or future; Bishara always apologizes for not being tuned into the exact timeframe.  The final step in the cup reading is the “yes” or “no” question when the guest asks about something silently that must be phrased to be answered with a “yes” or “no.”  Bishara advises the guest to concentrate on the question, lick the tip of their right thumb and press their thumb into the bottom of the cup.  “Ah,” says Bishara, “the answer is yes, and, by the way, you have a very white heart,” or “it will happen, but there are some roadblocks in the way.”  Bishara always teases me that he can’t read my cup, because he knows me too well; it would seem unfair.

Our relocation to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in late 2000, and Doha, Qatar in early Fall 2004, allowed me the opportunity to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the Turkish coffee experience from a whole new perspective, while Bishara reconnected with the experience in a more familiar setting and at a more organic level.  I was, increasingly, becoming less the novice and more ensconced with the notion that the serving of Turkish coffee was the harbinger of protracted conservation with friends and family, often coupled with pistachios, Arabic sweet pastries, fatayer, and olives.  In other words, a time to sit back, relax and enjoy the moments.

How to Make Turkish Coffee

  • Heat up water in bakraj/ibrik until it starts to boil.  Bakraj’s vary in size from a two-person pot, around three inches tall, to a ten-person pot, around five inches tall.


Bakraj with water.

  • For every demitasse cup, use one heaping teaspoon of coffee and one level teaspoon of sugar.  The amount of sugar, however, depends on individual taste.  My husband and I tend to like our Turkish coffee sweeter.  (If you like cardamom, include 1/8 of a teaspoon for every potful when coffee placed in bakraj.)

Adding coffee grounds to bakraj.

Adding sugar to bakraj.

  • As coffee mixture heats up, foam and floating coffee are important components of the texture, and resulting flavor, of the coffee.

Foaming Turkish Coffee.

  • When mixture starts to boil, again, remove the bakraj off the stove, and stir, and as coffee mixture recedes, put bakraj back on hot stove.
  • Wait until mixture starts to boil, again.  Remove the bakraj, again, and stir.
  • Put bakraj, again, on stove, let it boil, and then remove, and it’s ready to serve.


Drinking Turkish Coffee.


. . . And now for our Arabic lesson for my western friends.  (This is vernacular Arabic using  the Lebanese dialect.)

When do you want to meet for coffee?

متى تريد أن تجتمع لقهوة؟           MATA TUREED AN TEJTAMAH LE QAHWAH ?


Is the coffee ready?

هل القهوة جاهزة ؟                   HAL AL QAHWAH JAHZAH?


Do you want milk and sugar with your (the) coffee?

هل تريد الحليب والسكر مع القهوة ؟              HAL TUREED AL HALEEB WA AL SUKAR MAH AL QAHWAH?


How many spoons of sugar would you like (want)?

كم ملعقة من السكر تريد؟                           KUM MILAHQAH MEN AL SUKAR TUREED?




AN = TO (or “THAT” or “AT”)


LE = FOR (or “TO”)


HAL = IS (or “ARE” or “DO” or “WAS” or “WERE” ; but only in a question)









MEN = OF (or “FROM”)

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Turkish Evening in Qatar

Abdülmecid I was the Sultan of the Ottoman Emp...

Abdulmecid I (Sultan of Ottoman Empire, 1839-1861)

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 (Ottoman Lounge)

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).

Turkish Delight, French Nougat, Coconut Ice - ...

Turkish Delights - (Love when our friends bring these sweets back from Turkey!)

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

Creamy yogurt

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.

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Iraqi Evening in Qatar

Images of old Mesopotamia and Babylonia are evoked as one walks into the Iraqi restaurant, Al Adhamiyah, located in Souq Al-Waqif in Doha.  Souq Al-Waqif is a renovated Arab marketplace frequented by nationals, expatriates, and tourists alike in the forward-looking Gulf nation of Qatar.  The souq is abuzz most nights with people meandering along the maze of alleyways as vendors outside small shops brimming with spices, fabric, kitchenware, scarves, children’s toys, and so much more, call out to passersby to sample their wares.  Al Adhamiya, located along a wide corridor of the souq, which houses restaurants with cuisines from the region and around the world, ranging from Lebanese, Moroccan, and Iranian to Thai, Italian, and Malaysian, is the only Iraqi restaurant I’ve seen in Doha.

Front of Iraqi Restaurant

Latticework in Iraqi Restaurant

Iraqi Restaurant Downstairs

Iraqi Restaurant Upstairs 1

Iraqi Restaurant Upstairs 2

Wall of Iraqi Restaurant

Greeted warmly by the manager and waiters, alike, we are guided to our favorite table upstairs by a large window with French door adornments that open up to “souq life” swirling in the boulevard below.  Along the way to our table we are treated to a “feast of the eyes,” as intricate wooden latticework, prevalent in Iraq, is found throughout the restaurant; encasing stain glass windows, outlining alcoves in cozy majlis-style corners, framing relics and old photos, and serving as exquisite accordion partitions for privacy.  Colorful stained glass lanterns hang from the thatched ceiling, and over the sound system Nazem Al Ghazali, an Iraqi favorite, is singing, “Samraa Men Quom Esa,” a song of impossible inter-faith love.  My husband, Bishara, explains to me that Al Ghazali’s reach extended to Jordan where Bishara lived as a child.  He recalls the times his mother would listen to “Samraa” while sipping Turkish coffee against a backdrop of grape vines, roses, the odd olive tree, and occasional cackling of roosters in the backyard garden of their family home in Mafraq, Jordan.

While Iraqi music and famous singers are the stuff of more recent popular culture, Iraq has a rich history that stretches back to ancient times.  Present day Iraq was once known as the “Cradle of Civilization,” where some of the first writing systems were developed and the potter’s wheel was invented.  The Sumerians of Mesopotamia, who inhabited the region (of Iraq) around 3,500 BC, were responsible for creating the sexagesimal number system, which is the basis for the 360 degree circle, the 60 minute hour, and the 24 hour day.  The Bronze Age in Mesopotamia saw the genesis of rudimentary mathematics and astronomy, which included the use of moon cycles in the development of the 12-month calendar.

Corner of Iraqi Restaurant

Bishara Upstairs in Iraqi Restaurant

Bishara Downstairs in Iraqi Restaurant

Food and recipes also have a distinct place in the ancient history of Iraq, where the world’s first recipes were found on tablets in Babylonia 10,000 years ago.  Fast forward to the present time, and on this night, as has happened on so many nights and afternoons before, we would be sampling the culinary delights of the Al Adhamiya Iraqi restaurant.  The menu is extensive and varied and includes traditional Iraqi meals ranging from Maklouba, sometimes referred to as an “upside down” rice dish cooked with eggplant, onion, potatoes, tomatoes, and chicken with cinnamon and nutmeg to taste; to Kouzi, a lamb dish with tomatoes, onion and garlic, seasoned with baharat spice and turmeric, and served with long-grain (timn) rice, a staple of Iraqi cuisine.  Soups and stews are quite popular in Iraq, as well, and Al Adhamiya serves up Tashreeb (or Tashrib), where Iraqi bread (nan) is broken into bits and placed in the bottom of a bowl with soup made of lamb, or chicken, and tomatoes poured on top.  One of the familiar sights is Masgouf, translates to “impaled fish,” considered to be the national dish of Iraq, being grilled on wooden embers in a large glass enclosed case near the entrance of the restaurant.

Me at Table of Iraqi Restaurant

Bread from Iraqi Restaurant

Mixed Mezzah at Iraqi Restaurant

Me and Bishara at Table in Iraqi Restaurant

My favorite dish, though, and I will admit I can sometimes get stuck in a rut and order the same thing over and over again, is shrimp biryani.  Originating from Persia (Iran), traders introduced biryani to India, and it has since become popular in Iraq and Arab Gulf countries.  I usually precede this delectable dish of fragrant basmati rice, shrimp and vegetables with mixed mezzah – the standard hummus, babaganoush, labne, mixed salad, turshi (picked vegetables), and the incomparable freshly baked Iraqi bread, or nan, served from beginning to end of the meal.  Following our meals, Arab hospitality is on full display at Al Adhamiya as we are served endless cups of complimentary aromatic Iraqi red tea with cardamom.  We are sent off with a bag full of piping hot Iraqi nan, hearty handshakes, and wishes for a good evening.

Kouzi Lamb Recipe

6 small lamb shanks
1 onion, diced
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon baharat spice
1/2 teaspoon  turmeric
2 large tomatoes, diced
1/2 cup of water
1 tablespoon  tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 dried lime
salt and pepper, to taste

1. Rinse the lamb shanks in cold water, dry and place in oven proof dish. In a pan, fry onions in olive oil until tender. Add garlic, baharat and turmeric. Fry for 1 minute. Add tomatoes, water, tomato paste, bay leaf, dried lime, salt and pepper.

2. Bring to a full boil then reduce to low for 5 minutes. Preheat oven to 375 F, pour sauce over shanks, cover with foil and cook in the oven for 3 hours (make sure liquid covers lamb, if not add more water).

Yields: 3-4 servings

Recipe from: http://www.yasalamcooking.com/2008/02/kouzi-ala-timman.html

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Arabic Lesson # 1: Bread

The focus of this first Arabic lesson will be on bread.  Why bread, you ask?  Because bread is the staple of the Arabic diet, often doubling as an edible utensil.  Many Arab meals start with mezzah, hummus, babaghanoush (or mutabbal), tabbouleh, fattoush, kibbeh, yogurt with garlic and cucumber, and the list goes on; particularly in the Levant (or Bilad ash-Sham), which includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, as well as northern Iraq, and a portion of southern Turkey.  Mezzah dishes are scooped up with Arabic pita bread with nary a silver utensil in view.  Now, westerners like me typically buy our pita bread from local grocery stores like Mega Mart or Carrefour, but Qataris and other Arab nationals often buy their bread from bakeries in town.  A Jordanian friend pointed out one such bakery to us recently, and I decided to go inside to see an Arabic bread bakery “up close and personal,” which will provide the source of inspiration for our first Arabic lesson.

So, here comes the Arabic lesson, but before we start, there are a few caveats I need to mention.  There are some good sites on the internet that provide translations from English to Arabic, however, the translations are in formal Arabic like what you hear on Arab newscasts and such.  What I’d like to do with my Arabic lessons is to provide the translation in the vernacular, or everyday language.  I’ve looked into taking classes in Arabic, but found the formal Arabic not to be entirely useful.  So, I’ve turned to my husband, Bishara, a native of Lebanon, and fluent Arab speaker, to help me in my pursuits to learn “conversational” Arabic.  Another thing I should mention; I will be providing the translation phonetically in English, as this has helped me in my study of Arabic.  Also, keep in mind that Arabic script is written from right to left.  (It was strange when I first saw a book written in Arabic, and the front cover was on the back of the book.)  The English phonetics in this lesson, though, will be written from left to right. . .

. . . So, here we go.  To set up the scene I am in a bread bakery talking to the baker about buying some bread.

Outside Doha Bread Bakery

Bread on Conveyor

Bread in Container

Me at Bread Bakery


Me:  I would like to buy some bread.

ANA BEDDEE ASHTREE KHUBOZ.  .انا بدي اشتري خبز


Baker:  Okay.

TAIEB.    . طيب


Me: Is the bread fresh?

HADA ALKHUBUZ TAZEJ?    هدا الخبز طازج؟


Baker:  Of course, our bread is always fresh from the oven.


. طبعا, خبزنا دايما طازج من الفرن


Me: How much does it cost?

KUM HADA?    كم هدا؟


Baker:  It costs ten riyals per kilogram.


. كل كيلوغرم ييكالف عشرة ريالات


Me:  Okay, thank you.

TAIEB SHUKRAN.  . طيب شكرا


Where They Make the Bread


Making Dough for Bread

Baked Bread

Bags of Flour


















Sites for translation from English to Arabic:

http://translate.google.com/ (provides sound recording)


Souks of Qatar (Omani, Vegetable, and Fish)

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.

Omani Souk (General)

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).

Truffles at Omani Souk

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.

Dates in the Omani Souk

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.

Bonsai Tree & Plant Pots in Omani Souk

Baskets in Omani Souk

Dried Fish in Omani Souk

Fruit & Vegetables in Omani Souk

Flowers in Omani Souk # 3

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.

Vegetable Souk # 1

White Eggplant & Turnips at Vegetable Souk

Me at Vegetable Souk

Man w/Red Beard at Vegetable Souk

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.

Blue Crabs at Fish Market

Fish at Fish Market # 2

King Fish at Fish Market

View of Fish Souk

Grilled Hammour (Grouper) Recipe:


  1. 250 g hamour fillet
  2. 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  3. 2 tablespoons olive oil
  4. 1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
  5. ½ teaspoon dried tarragon
  6. salt and pepper
  7. 200 g potatoes, boiled
  8. 150 g green peas, boiled
  9. 20 g fresh mint leaves, chopped
  10. 50 ml milk
  11. 3 tablespoons butter
  12. 1 teaspoonfresh parsley, chopped
  13. 1 pinch nutmeg


  1. Mix lemon juice, olive oil, ginger-garlic paste, tarragon herb, salt and pepper to make a marinade.
  2. Marinate the hammour fillet in this for a few hours or overnight for best results.
  3. Grill it over the charcoal griller.
  4. Saute garlic in butter.
  5. Toss mint and greenpeas in it.
  6. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Mash grated potatoes in a pan.
  8. Add milk, butter, salt, pepper and nutmeg gradually until creamy in texture.
  9. Finish off with cream and parsley.
  10. Arrange the grilled hammour in the centre of your serving plate.
  11. Serve hot with salad and other accompaniments such as lemon butter sauce.

From: http://www.plaincook.com/grilled-hammour-Recipe-2007-06-23/

Egyptian Evening in Qatar

Not long ago, my husband and I, along with some expatriate friends, had the opportunity to dine at the Khan Farouk Tarab Café, a newly opened Egyptian restaurant in Doha located at the Katara Cultural Village.  The “Cultural Village” complex sports an impressive opera house, an open air amphitheater, the Qatar Music Academy, a cinema, a beach, and a variety of international restaurants.

When we arrived at Khan Farouk Tarab Café at 6:00 on a Friday evening for dinner, early by Arab standards, the restaurant was already quite full, and since we didn’t have a reservation we had to squeeze into a corner where we sat atop a bench with comfy cushions splashed in hues of red, blue and green.  Similarly colored portable cushioned armrests helped to give the restaurant the feel of an oversized majlis (sitting area commonly found in Arab homes and used for social functions).

Inside Egyptian Restaurant

In the opposite corner sat a middle-aged Arab woman (not sure if she was an Egyptian native), cross-legged, tending to the preparation of Egyptian bread the old-fashioned way.  The mixed dough was in a silver bowl with a smaller silver bowl placed in front of her.  Wetting her hands she would pull a doughy mold from the larger bowl and pat it in her hands in a circular formation, and place it on a large wooden tray filled halfway with crushed wheat seeds.  Once the wooden box was filled, an oversized, and extended, wooden spatula was used to place each of the mounds in the gas-fired oven.  When cooked, the round, flat, doughy bread was placed in another large rectangular wooden box to cool down before being put in a woven basket to be served to restaurant guests.  Bread is an important staple in Egypt, and the larger Arab world, and is used as an edible utensil for dipping.

Woman Making Bread in Egyptian Restaurant


Bread Oven at Egyptian Restaurant

The restaurant, with outdoor and indoor seating, including a “family section,” was teeming with people, families and single men in thobes and ghuttras, all enjoying what I’ve been told by Egyptian expatriates is the only authentic Egyptian restaurant in Doha.  The restaurant had a pleasant buzz with people chattering, several tables of young Qatari men smoking fruit flavored sheesha, and waiters decked out in green vests, tarbooshes (fezzes) with gold tassels, and harem pants, scurrying around.

Waiter at Egyptian Restaurant

Outdoor Seating for Egyptian Restaurant

Over the speakers, Umm Khultum’s wailing songs of love and loss could be heard throughout the restaurant.  Umm Khultum, an Egyptian native who lived from the turn of the last century until 1975, is considered by many in Egypt, and the Middle East, in general, to be the greatest singer of all time.  In her prime, Umm Khultum, (which means ‘mother of Khultum’), would sing two or three songs on stage, with certain lines repeated over and over again, that could last up to four hours depending on her creative mood and the reaction of the audience.

Once settled into our corner table, we had an opportunity to review the extensive menu.  For starters we had Foul, or “Ful,” (a mashed up fava bean dish).  There were quite a few options for ordering the Foul: with olive oil and lemon, with lemon, with butter, with tahini (a sesame seed paste), or with eggs.  We decided on the “with olive oil and lemon” option.  We also couldn’t do without Falafel, (made with fried chick peas), and sampled the “Tahina with Parsley Salad.”  Parsley, or “baqdounis” in Arabic, is widely used in the Middle East as an ingredient rather than simply as a garnish, as is the case in the U.S.

Picture of Old Egyptian Restaurant in Menu

Our friends also ordered Koushari, which brought back fond memories for some of the family members of their time in Egypt, and for others, not so much.  Koushari is made with black lentils, rice, chick peas and pasta served with separate tomato sauce, and our friends called it “Egyptian spaghetti.”  Along with these culinary delights we had the grilled chicken kebabs (the standard is the lamb or mixed grill kebabs) and the Molokhia, (like green spinach), with chicken, a favorite of mine and my husband’s.  The Molokhia (sometimes cooked with rabbit) rivaled what my husband’s Lebanese mother used to make for him and the rest of the family.  Tummies filled to bursting, we decided to forgo the famous Egyptian desert oum ali (literal translation is “mother of Ali”), made of bread, milk and honey.

Egyptian recipe of “Molokhia” or Melokhia (also known as tossa jute)


  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • 1/2 kg of fresh molokhia (or melokhia) leaves cleaned
  • one tablespoon tomato paste (optional)
  • one hot chili pepper (optional)
  • one bay leaf (optional)
  • one small onion, finely chopped (optional)
  • black pepper
  • two tablespoons of butter
  • several cloves of garlic, minced
  • one teaspoon ground coriander
  • one teaspoon salt
  • one tablespoon fresh coriander leaves (also called cilantro) or fresh parsley, finely chopped (optional)
  • juice of one lemon or a teaspoon vinegar (optional)
  • ground cayenne pepper or red pepper (optional)


  • Chop the molokhia leaves as finely as possible. In Egypt, the perfect tool to finely chop molokhia leaves is a makhrata — a curved knife with two handles similar to the Italian mezzaluna
  • Over high heat, bring the chicken stock to a near boil in a large pot. Add the molokhia, stirring well. Add the tomato paste, chili pepper, bay leaf, and onion (if desired), and black pepper, continuing to stir. Reduce heat and simmer. The molokhia will simmer for about twenty minutes.
  • After the chicken stock and melokhia have simmered for about ten minutes: heat the butter in a skillet. Using either the back of a spoon in a bowl or a sharp knife on a cutting board, grind the garlic, ground coriander, and the salt together into a paste. Fry the mixture in the oil for two to four minutes, stirring constantly, until the garlic is slightly browned
  • After the melokhia has been simmering for about twenty minutes and has broken down to make a thick soup, add the garlic mixture and the butter it was fried in to the simmering molokhia. Stir well
  • Add any of the remaining optional ingredients that you like. Continue simmering and stirring occasionally for a few more minutes.
  • Serve immediately, hot. Molokhia soup is often served over boiled Rice and sometimes with boiled chicken.

Recipe from:  http://www.egyptgiftshop.com/egyptguide/egyptian_recipe_molokhia.html

Outside Egyptian Restaurant


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