For far too long, Doha has lived with the disreputable label of being an unhealthy city. It’s easy to see why. The painful lack of sidewalks fuels a driving culture to the point where some venues so clearly designed for strolling offer golf cart service to ferry people around.
Then there’s the food. Collectively, Dohanians – a term I use fondly to describe myself and fellow residents – unite around our nosh. We dine out several times a week, bump into posh colleagues at the most unlikely shawarma shacks, and inevitably catch up with friends over a plate of something or another.
And that something or another is more often than not drenched in creamy, heavenly, calorie-laden goodness. Far from the vegan-chic, quinoa-craving societies of far, far away, Doha seems reluctant to move on from the culinary traditions of yesteryear where quantity is espoused as a symbol of hospitality and nutrition is ignored in favour of flavour.
It used to be that if you were on a regime to shed some poundage, eating out would be problematic. Looking for a light salad? Careful it doesn’t come pre-dressed with a mayo-based dressing or is topped with deep-fried starches. Think the grilled salmon is the healthiest route? Don’t forget that it’s sitting on a bed of no-holds mashed potatoes and lemon butter sauce.
Just recently, a friend ordered a quinoa risotto that the menu categorised under ‘healthy alternative’. It may as well been called melted cheese stew – clearly scrumptious, but also the absolute antithesis to its advertised status.
That said, the New Year is all about reinventions. Now more than ever, Doha is seeking to shake off its nutritionally irresponsible image. And quite a few restaurants are forging the way.
Jones the Grocer has a lineup of salads that tick the boxes to fill you up without weighing you down; I’m a personal fan of the pumpkin and feta. The current seasonal menu at the W Hotel’s Spice Market features a crispy grain salad with tamarind vinaigrette… so light and wholesome, you could even devour two guiltless orders. And don’t get into the rut of thinking that ‘healthy’ means going vegetarian. The seafood paella served every Saturday at The Ritz-Carlton Living Room is a shining example of delicious nourishment.
I’d be the first to admit that going for the healthier option is neither the easiest nor most natural path for me. It’d take a miracle for me to forgo the chocolate tart or raspberry mousse at La Varenne in lieu of the dessert fruit salad.
But more importantly, I actually have these options now. So if your resolution in 2014 is to eat healthy, rest easy that you won’t go hungry in Doha.
** This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of BBC Good Food – Middle East, as part of a special dispensation from my lovely bosses at Al Jazeera to be a contributing writer for “the other folks” **