Cooking During Quarantine: A Taste of Qatar

Lamb kafte with basmati rice

Jake Miller, Copy Editor

If there is one thing that has been universal in this period of self-isolation, it is that everyone has had a lot more time to think. Too much, if you ask me. Of course, we are all thinking about something different. There are those who are reminiscing on times before this pandemic, when spending time with friends outside was a commonplace occurrence, and there are those who dwell on the future where we return to our beloved live sports, movie theaters, and restaurants. Some find a sense of escapism in light-hearted TV shows, while others have worked towards learning new hobbies. I have spent a lot of my time thinking about Qatar. Yeah, that little peninsula country in the Arabian Gulf. It sounds weird, but let me explain. I spent a year living in its capital city, Doha, due to my family’s work moving us there, and it was where I first experienced the now-normal routine of staying inside all day. It was not very often, but for a few days during the summer, the temperature would exceed 130° F or a dust storm would arise, and I would have no choice but to seal the doors and stay inside for my own safety. The stakes are much higher now and the whole stay-at-home things is certainly lasting longer than a day, but I have found a bit of solace in remembering my time spent overseas.

My fondest memories of Qatar are of its food: chicken shawarma, Armenian lamb mante, Turkish coffee, and my favorite Lebanese pastry, sambousek jebneh.”

— Jake Miller

Especially during the holy month of Ramadan, I miss going to multi-faith Iftars and enjoying the rich and diverse cuisine of the Middle East. So, as someone who has been watching way too many Bon Appétit videos and has been bored out of their mind for the past two months, the next step seemed obvious: I will just cook the food myself! I spent a couple days researching my favorite dishes from my time in Doha and decided to write some simplified recipes for them that anyone can make with the right ingredients. The kitchen has been a retreat from the barrage of bad news these days, and if you are not too busy, I encourage you to fire up that grill and join me in making a simple, delicious dinner for a night-in during quarantine.

The first thing I am going to make is maamoul, an ancient Levantine cookie commonly served at Eid or Easter. The preparation is fairly straightforward: start by making a shortbread cookie dough, which is traditionally one part sugar, two parts butter, and three parts flour. Cream one cup of butter and half a cup of granulated sugar in a mixer until well combined, then adding one and a half cups of flour. You can combine all-purpose flour and semolina for a more traditional texture. I added two teaspoons of orange blossom water for essence, but rose water is another traditional option. Let the dough chill in the fridge for 30 minutes once well combined and in the meantime, make the filling. I processed one and a half cup of dates and half a cup of pistachios in a food processor, but I encourage you to get creative with your fillings and use what you think would taste best. Other traditional options would include walnuts or apricots, but some dried coconut could also compliment the flavors well. Generously season the mixture with cardamom and cinnamon as it blends into small pieces (these provide a bit of warmth to the cookie). Once your dough is ready, cut it into 12 equal pieces, shaping each into cups where you will place the filling and then wrap the dough around. Traditionally, the dough would be imprinted with maamoul tongs, giving it a special pattern. These are unsurprisingly hard to find and they taste just as good without the stenciling, but if you want to give it a try, go for it! Bake on 350° F for 12 minutes.

Next, I am going to make the baba ghanoush.

Next, I am going to make lamb kafte. Kafte is a Lebanese meat dish that relies heavily on spices and grilling for a unique flavor. Begin by mincing half a yellow onion and one clove of garlic. Then take two pounds of ground lamb (beef works just as well) and add to a bowl. Toss in the minced vegetables and add one egg. Lastly, season generously with your spices. I used cinnamon (go a little lighter on this one), clove (a lot of it!), mint, cumin (again, lots!), salt, pepper, and sumac. Sumac is a spice unique to Middle Eastern cuisine; it is one of the only spices that can provide a touch of tanginess and is absolutely delicious, so do not be afraid to add a lot. I like to eyeball my spices so I do not have exact measurements for this recipe, but ultimately, you should trust your instincts and add how much you feel comfortable with.  Combine the ground meat mixture until the spices and onions are evenly distributed. Kafte is presented in a particular shape; it’s about the length of a sausage, but flattened down a little bit. Do not stress the exact shape—these could taste good in any form. When ready, insert a kabob stick (or anything of the like) into each kafte and grill for about 10-12 minutes, flipping halfway through. Grilling is essential here; a key flavor in Middle Eastern cuisine is smokiness, something only that grill can provide. Serve the kafte with some long-grained rice, like basmati. I mixed my rice with za’atar spice mix, a popular seasoning in the Middle East. You can make it at home by mixing one tablespoon each of marjoram, cumin, coriander, sesame seeds, sumac, and a pinch (or two) of Aleppo chili flakes.

Lastly, I am going to make fried halloumi, a popular appetizer in the Middle East; it is a goat’s cheese that is super salty and chewy (if eaten raw, it can even be a little rubbery). To fry it, simply coat it lightly in flour and breadcrumbs, and add it to sizzling oil (canola, olive, etc.) in a non-stick pan. It will only take about 30 seconds on each side and it’s best eaten almost immediately, so do this one last and keep a close eye on it.

All in all, I spent most of my day making this and I was incredibly satisfied with the results. Middle Eastern food is a treasure too often overlooked in the United States, and I encourage everyone to give one (or all!) of these recipes a try if you have the time and the right ingredients. Cooking is one of my favorite things to do, and during this stressful time, it has been a nice respite from the chaos that has become our daily lives. It is important to enjoy your time in the kitchen and not stress out about it too much. I made a ton of mistakes preparing these (and even had to start the maamoul all over again after they melted in the oven!), but I took each one as a learning experience that will make me more prepared next time I step into the kitchen. Enjoy!