Moving to a new country is always an adventure in some respect: be it adapting to the social customs, the geography, climate or language. Trying out new varieties of food and drink is part of the adventure too. New flavors, ingredients, styles of cooking and even new ways of eating and drinking may be on offer or expected: not everyone uses a fork, or holds it in their left hand if they do!
With respect to Qatar, its food culture is an intriguing mix of local Arab cuisine and modern influences from India, Iran, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent. While its harsh climate and difficult farming conditions mean that it relies heavily on food imports, it does produce some vegetables, fruits, cereals, meat, fish and dairy products.
Popular types of food and drink
Qatar’s national dish is “machboos”: a spiced rice dish with meat and vegetables that is sometimes flavored with rose water and lemon juice. Machboos can be found in most local eateries. Whilst this is typical of many dishes in Qatar and is high in protein, expats may like to order fresh salad with their meals to ensure they also get a good intake of vitamins and nutrients.
Qatar offers plenty of fresh, healthy fruit juices – such as one made with orange blossom water, fresh mint and lemon juice – which offer a good source of vitamins. Qatar is an Islamic country, so alcohol is not readily available although expats can buy alcoholic drinks at some international hotels and bars.
Qatari eating customs and habits
When eating in Qatar, it is common to use the right hand, rather than cutlery (the left hand should never be used to eat with, as it is considered unclean). However, this custom can vary depending on the setting, so take your lead from the locals. Most Qataris will use three or four fingers, or perhaps a piece of bread, to pick up their food.
In keeping with this custom, expats should wash their hands before eating to prevent the spread of bacteria from their hands while eating. Dates are usually offered at the start of meals – these are a good source of fiber and have many health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk of heart disease.
Food and drink events and festivals
To get a taste of authentic Qatari cuisine and sample dishes from around the world, expats can visit the Qatar International Food Festival, which takes place every year. It features live cooking demonstrations, as well as exhibits from Qatar’s most popular restaurants and cafés, so expats may like to use the opportunity to discover some healthy traditional dishes.
Qatari cooking styles and ingredients
Middle Eastern cuisine tends to blend flavors that expats from Western countries like the UK and US may not be familiar with. For example, a lot of savory dishes have an underlying sweetness and fragrant quality from ingredients like rose water, dates and honey which are not usually found in traditional Western cuisine.
Arab dishes can also contain meats that are not commonly eaten in the UK or US, such as goat and camel (the hump of the camel is a particular delicacy, as it is the fattiest and most tender part), so expats may find that meat dishes have unfamiliar textures and tastes. Most Qatari meals are prepared using the hands, as this is believed to transfer good energy into the food.
Practical considerations for eating and drinking in Qatar
Qatar is officially an alcohol-free country, so, although expats are able to buy alcohol there, it is illegal to drink or be drunk in public. Pork is also not readily available, as most Qataris are Muslims, but expats can visit the Qatar Distribution Company if they wish to buy some.
As an Islamic country, Qataris fast during the holy month of Ramadan (where they abstain from drinking, smoking and eating from dawn until dusk). Expats are advised not to eat, drink or smoke in public during this period to avoid offending Muslims who are fasting.
Common issues expats face with food and drink in Qatar
While traditional Qatari food is naturally quite healthy, food-related health problems have started to emerge in the country in recent years. Indeed, in 2015, the Ministry of Public Health released dietary guidelines in response to the increase in fat, sugar and salt in the Qatari diet – mainly due to the growing use of table salt, spices, pickles, and animal-derived fats in food, and the influence of the western fast food culture.
As well as obesity and heart disease, a lot of Qataris and expats suffer from vitamin D deficiency and anemia, as they are not getting the right nutrients in their diet. Food poisoning is also an issue in Qatar, due to the heat and the spread of bacteria.
Food and drink for expats with health conditions
Expats with allergies and intolerances should be aware that some Qatari meals contain nuts, seafood and dairy products. Expats may have international health insurance as part of their travel preparations, which can be useful for ensuring access to efficient medical care in case of an emergency, especially with respect to food-related illness. People with vitamin D deficiency or anemia might also wish to seek medical advice, as a Qatari diet may not naturally contain enough of the nutrients they need.
Expats should be able to achieve a healthy diet throughout their stay in Qatar. However, anyone suffering from a vitamin D deficiency or anemia should consider speaking with their doctor about taking vitamin supplements or other forms of medication to ensure a healthy diet.
Expats should also be aware of, and sensitive to, the holy month of Ramadan, which can affect the eating habits of expats and native residents alike.