Sunshine for breakfast in Doha's Souq Waqif

Photo of a green table full of breakfast dishes, regag breads with fillings and without, folded into fanciful shapes
Here you get a breakfast spread that says: 'It’s the weekend now' [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Here you get a breakfast spread that says: 'It’s the weekend now' [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Doha, Qatar - To say Shams al-Qassabi is an effusive personality is to hit the nail on the (friendly) head.

“Hello, hello, hello. Welcome!” is what you hear as you walk into her restaurant. If you wonder whether this petite woman somehow knows who you are, she doesn’t - but she’s going to greet you like long-lost family anyway.

Shams, who is in her 60s, is the owner and force behind Shay al-Shomous, a bustling breakfast spot in Doha’s Souq Waqif (the Standing Market).

We were led into the restaurant, towards a general buzz of conversation accompanied by the tinkling of tiny spoons against tea glasses as families and groups of friends relaxing on a Friday morning, anticipating the weekend ahead.

A glass cup of milky tea sits on its glass saucer. There are strands of saffron on top
Shay b-haleeb, a milky tea, can be prepared with saffron or cardamom [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Eman, Shams’s daughter who helps out at the restaurant on the weekends, showed us to a table that seemed much too big for two. “For all the food,” she chuckled, gesturing that we didn’t need to worry, she knew exactly how big the table needed to be.

“Tea?” she asked briskly, already gesturing to one of the waiters.

“Yes, please.”

“Milk or no milk?”


“OK, tea with saffron or cardamom?”

So many choices. Saffron won for the day.

Soon, Shams - whose name means Sun - came to see us, a bustling figure, adjusting the black shayla snugged around her face. She welcomed us again and looked around her airy restaurant with its green tables and simple chairs at people coming in or leaving. Everyone wanted to say "hello" or "see you soon", and she spoke to everyone. Some conversations were warmer and more familiar, indicating that these were old customers or friends, while others introduced themselves and thanked her for an amazing meal.

A phot of Shams as she smiles slightly at the camera
Shams has had to work hard to get to where she is today, fighting her family and the Souq's merchants who weren't used to a woman in their midst [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

“All right, now you eat, OK?” she said, the look on her open, smiling face telling us there was only one possible answer. Waving away the suggestion that we would choose something from the menu, she walked off, adjusting the shoulders of her black abaya and assuring us that we would eat what she served.

Plate after plate of food came out of the kitchen, bringing with them a tantalising scent of cardamom and saffron that rose from the table like a reassuring hug. There were bowls of boiled fava beans and chickpeas, cones and folds of impossibly thin wafer-like breads with delectable fillings, two different kinds of scrambled eggs, and a dish of vermicelli with egg on top. A breakfast spread that announced: “It’s the weekend now.”

More tea was brought and poured, and the eating commenced.

Regag , beid tamat, and heritage

In focus is one half of a double cone of crisp regag bread. We can see the thin egg filling and a sprinkle of green zaatar
Shams spends hours coming up with new recipes and new ways to present traditional ingredients [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Shams spends hours coming up with new recipes and new ways to present traditional ingredients [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

First was a twisted double cone of thin thin bread with a layer of eggs clinging impossibly to its interior, khubz regag with a zaatar-sprinkled twist. This was a banka regag, cooked hot and fast to wafer-like crispness on a griddle. The eggs had cooked just right, and the sprinkling of zaatar was a dry, savoury foil to the silky egg and shatter-thin bread.

Eman came to join us, signalling to a waiter for tea and settling in to share the meal and talk. She’s here every weekend, she says, helping out with social media, updating the computers, and whatever else she can. Her pride in her mother and what she has achieved as a prominent restauratrice and established female presence in the male-dominated Souq Waqif is apparent, she glows with it.

In the midst of talking, Eman breaks off to point out one dish or the other, urging us to “Eat, eat”, moving a bowl closer and asking what we think of it. A cute aluminium bucket of khubz regag in impossible shapes - wafer cylinders, folded fairy wings - sits at the end of the table, too far in Eman’s opinion, and we promise that we’ll get to them soon.

A closeup shot of a bucket of regag bread, the folded ones in the foreground have a sprinkling of zaatar inside them while the rolls of regag in the back are sweet, with sugar sprinkled inside
Crisp regag, in the front, is zaatar regag and behind them are regag rolls with a secret sprinkling of sugar inside, so beloved that Shams fills orders for hundreds of them from as far afield as Kuwait [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

The beid tamat was a hit of comfort that gets you right away. Simmered tomatoes - and maybe peppers - with spices and herbs get eggs poured over them and scrambled quickly, then served with a generous dollop of processed cheese spread on top. Creamy, white processed cheese in a jar is a firm staple in Qatar, and don’t knock it till you try it because when it’s paired correctly, it adds just the right amount of richness to a dish.

A dish of balaleet sat next to the beid tamat, toasted vermicelli cooked with a hint of cardamom and saffron and sweetened just a bit, then topped with lightly spiced scrambled eggs. The key for every step of putting this sweet/salty dish together is “lightly” because the contrasts magnify the flavours. The moreish combination of sweet vermicelli and savoury eggs makes you wonder why eggs aren’t made this way all the time.

A closeup of a plate of vermicelli cooked to a yellowish tinge, topped with spiced scrambled eggs cooked all the way through
Balaleet are toasted vermicelli cooked with a hint of cardamom and saffron and sweetened slightly, then topped with lightly spiced scrambled eggs [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

These unexpected taste combinations that are common on the Qatari breakfast table are what Shams wanted to bring to the wider public when she opened Shay al-Shomous in 2014. Serving only breakfast dishes, she took some local and regional classics and added to them, especially in the khubz regag category.

Regag is bread, made with flour, water and a little salt, and traditionally eaten plain or broken up into chunks and soaked in hot broth to make a Ramadan dish known as thareed. For generations, doting mothers and grandmothers would spread a little warm ghee on the bread and sprinkle sugar on it for the kids - something you can get at Shomous in that cute bread bucket, big cigar rolls of wafer-like regag with a sugary inner layer.

Shams is not the only woman selling food in the market, or even the only woman selling khubz regag. If you walk through the winding alleyways of Souq Waqif, you’ll come across clusters of women selling street food. Some are selling preprepared samosas, stews, and stuffed vegetables, and others will have their portable bread griddles set up on the sidewalk to make khubz regag fresh for hungry passers-by. They have been here since the Souq was reconstructed in 2006, landmarks within the market.

A regag bread with the sides folded in partway to make a rough triangular shape (the top of the triangle isn't closed) shows the rich yellow egg filling with strands of saffron floating on top
The surprising combination of sweetened eggs and strands of saffron makes this regag a surprising hit [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

The flavours of regag toppings offered here are a good range, from rich and sweet to umami punch. You can choose between chocolate-hazelnut spread, processed cheese (from a jar, yes), or mihyawa, a funky sauce made from fermented fish - thicker and softer than fish sauce.

Shams was the first to take regag so much further than its plain cousins. She offers regag lined with plain egg, eggs with ground beef, eggs with tomatoes and herbs topped with dollops of cheese, and sweet eggs with saffron strands on their glistening surface. There is a regag “sandwich” of sorts, cut into points like a pie, that she calls Shoomilah. Taking the first bite is a bewildering, if delicious, experience. The crisp bread gives way to a soft filling that again hits you with a bit of cardamom, a hint of saffron, and chewy strands inside that require a second bite to figure out. What is it? Coconut? Something else?

a crisp regag folded into a closed-corner triangle sits on a white plate, a small gap in the middle of the triangle shows the egg and ground meat filling
Shams excels at finding new ways to combine traditional Qatari regag with delicious fillings [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Shams won’t tell you what is in this mystery filling - she will smile, tilt her head to the side and basically say "no". All she would say is that the filling was in itself a stand-alone popular Qatari dish and anyone who wanted to know what it was was welcome to pop in and try it.

Starting out

A photo of the restaurant
Shams had to fight family, society and norms to become a recognised female entrepreneur [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Shams had to fight family, society and norms to become a recognised female entrepreneur [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Shams takes her trade secrets seriously because it’s been a long, tough road to get to where she is today - she had to fight family, society and norms to become a recognised female entrepreneur.

Married at a young age, Shams moved out of Doha to Dukhan, an hour west of the capital on today’s roads, where her husband worked for the national petroleum company. During the seven years they spent there, she raised her five children and kept up a constant flow of activity. When she wasn’t taking care of the children, she was training the cooks who worked for her husband’s company or sewing up a storm of little dresses that she embroidered by hand in colourful, fanciful designs.

Shams sold the dresses she made, dropping them off at a Doha shop when the family came to the capital to spend the weekends. She enjoyed constantly being busy, as she had since she was a young child.

Spice shop
Shams's love for spices and the spice trade encouraged her to take the plunge and open her own shop [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Her father and uncles were spice merchants in Doha’s old souq, and she spent countless afternoons accompanying her father to his shop where she would sit and listen to the merchants discussing their work and wares.

Wanting to sell something too, one afternoon eight-year-old Shams started making flowers out of fabric scraps at home and selling them to neighbours and passers-by. She giggles as she recounts how popular her flowers were, so popular that she had to shut the front gate and hide behind it to make more quickly for her clamouring customers.

Her father came home to find the gate locked and a crowd gathered out front. His heart sank, thinking something bad had happened. When he looked behind the gate and found Shams hurriedly making flowers, he of course demanded an explanation, which was delivered post haste. Laughing, he then bought her stock for the day, proud of her merchant spirit.

That spirit woke up again many years later, in the mid-1990s when Shams’s husband took early retirement and she decided she would like to support her family. At the time, she was well known among her neighbours for her delicious preserves and her deft hand in making spice mixes.

Mix of spices
The custom spice mixes Shams sells have an avid fan base all over the GCC [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

At this point in telling her story, Shams got up to bid farewell (or au revoir, as is often the case here) to a Kuwaiti diner, a purveyor of custom perfumes who had loved her meal. In fact, she had loved it so much that she told Shams that she would name her next perfume after her. After the warm conversation, Shams returned, chuckling, to her seat.

“Write that down in your story!” she cried, waving at the phone recording our interview. “Write that one of Shomous’s customers loved it here so much that the next perfume she makes will be named after me.”

Shomous is a nickname derived from Shams, but it wasn’t given to Shams by her family, rather it was suggested to her by the administration of the exhibit where she first made a name for herself in Qatar.

A Qatari woman goes to market

souq waqif
Souq Waqif (the Standing Market) has gone through many changes over the years [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Souq Waqif (the Standing Market) has gone through many changes over the years [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Back in 2001, Shams decided to take 500 riyals ($137) she had saved up from selling her preserves and spice mixes informally and participate in an exhibition for Qatar’s modern productive families.

This was a huge step for her. To be seen running a stall in an exhibition was a big ask for a Qatari woman at the time, and she was pretty sure her family would not approve. In a sense, Shams was right, some parts of her family still don’t approve and she has a sibling who has never visited her restaurant.

A photo of a photo of Shams standing with a seated Sheikh Hamad, her arm on his shoulder and his arm around her
The father Emir, Sheikh Hamad, is a regular at Shams's restaurant and has always encouraged her [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

At the time, she decided to go for it and set up her stall, decorating it with burlap bunting, plastic vegetables, and even an anchor she found. She had another DIY project too: because she couldn’t afford her own jars and didn’t know how to get labels printed, she scraped labels off used jars, sterilised them, filled them with her products, and decorated the jars and lids with more fabric, burlap, and artificial chilli peppers.

Shams got her products ready, decorated her stall, and was ready for opening day. But she still needed a name. After discussing a number of options with the exhibition staff, one of them came up to her and said the administration had suggested “Shomous”. And so, it stuck.

On the day of the opening, Shams was her usual chipper self. When she saw the first lady at the time, Sheikha Moza, cut the ribbon to officially open the exhibition, she grabbed a rope wound around the anchor in her stall and stretched it across the front. When Sheikha Moza came around to visit her display, Shams grinned and asked her to “officially open” her stall, which she did by pulling the rope to one side because there were no scissors big enough to be found.

A photo of Shams with Sheikha Moza
Shams keeps this photo of her with Sheikha Moza in a prime location in the restaurant [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

An amused Sheikha Moza was quickly impressed by the variety of products Shams was selling, and the next day the newspapers started talking about this Qatari female entrepreneur and what she was doing.

Three years later, Shams called up the management office of Souq Waqif. She wanted to set up her own spice shop in the old market with its aged stucco structures and bustling roads full of people getting their regular shopping done. She wanted a spot in the Women’s Souq, a section set aside mostly for female shoppers, which she figured would be secluded enough that she wouldn’t come face-to-face with the men of her family. Imagine her surprise then when she was given a shop right in the middle of all the other spice traders, in what is now known as the Bird Market.

She managed, though, toughing it out in the midst of her male relatives who had shops around her, and walking straight and proud while ignoring the snide comments being thrown her way by male merchants who did not approve of, or perhaps felt threatened by, a woman working in the market. And she succeeded, with more and more people coming to buy her spices and special spice mixes - known collectively as bezaar -  to prepare Qatari and regional dishes.

Another view of the green table with breakfast food on it. Prominent in it is a plate with three fried eggs topped with spicy baked beans and a sprinkle of copped herbs
Even simple fried eggs at Shay al-Shomous seem to taste different, maybe because of the generous scoop of spicy baked beans on top [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

A child’s wail interrupted Shams’s narrative, and we all turned to see what happened. A young boy who had come in with his family had hit his head on a wall while climbing off his father’s shoulders. Springing up from her seat, Shams exclaimed: “What happened, my darling?! Tell me, are you the one who broke our wall?!” with a huge smile on her face. The boy looked up at her, in awe, and quieted down. After exchanging a few words with his parents to make sure the little one was OK, Shams sat down to continue talking.

By this point, after so much delicious food had been consumed, a question presented itself: What was it that made Shams so enamoured with cooking? Was it cooking for her children and husband or was there something further back that had cemented that love?

“I used to spend a lot of time with my grandmother growing up. She lived in the house next door to ours and had me with her nearly every day.

A rectangular bowl of scrambled eggs with mushrooms is shown, the eggs have a slighlty yellowish tint and finely chopped veggies can be seen
Scrambled eggs with mushrooms are a Shams innovation, highlighting traditional Qatari taste profiles [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

“She would tell me stories, long stories, and while she was telling them she would be preparing food. I would watch her carefully, listening to the stories but that wasn’t the only thing that held my attention. With time, I started asking if I could do this or that, stirring and chopping along with her.

“After a while, I got good at it and I always loved experimenting. I was the one who trained the cooks working for my husband’s company.”

So what does Shams enjoy preparing for her family when they gathered in her home? In her characteristic exuberant way, she said: “Everything! Whatever they ask for, I make. Some of the kids for example don’t like meat, so I prepare chicken, and some of the grandchildren don’t like traditional machbous, so I developed a spice mix that was all white and would leave the machbous rice white.”

Machbous, by the way, is a Qatari dish of spiced rice topped with equally fragrant meat, chicken, or seafood.

Three sunny-side up eggs on a shite plate with a dollop of white beans in a tomato sauce on top, and chopped herbs sprinkled over top
Runny sunny-side-up eggs sit under a generous scoop of spicy luba beans [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

But curiosity about what this restauratrice's family gets to eat at home had to be satisfied, so the question went to Eman. What did Shams’s family get to eat on the weekends when they gathered at her house?

Fridays are for fish, Eman said, while Saturdays were typically for lentil dishes. Among the fish dishes mentioned were a hamour (a variety of cod) machbous and a hamsat rubyan - a dish that is a close relative of shrimp etouffee, with shrimp smothered in simmered onions, peppers, and tomatoes. It all sounded really good, no wonder Shams had decided to open up a restaurant.

The transition from purveyor of fine spices to restauratrice was not easy for Shams. In 2014, about 10 years after she first set up her shop and eight years after the Souq had been reconstructed, she was offered a move to a third location in the newly built Bidda Hotel. Outside her proposed shop was a small waiting area with enough facilities to offer refreshments to waiting customers - initially, she said with a giggle, she was told the space was for men who needed to wait outside while their wives shopped for spices. But the men shop too, she added.

Hotel and Souq management suggested she offer cappuccinos and similar beverages, an idea she did not like at all. Why serve something that wasn’t Qatari?

In the foreground is a regag bread with its sides folded in part-way to show its egg, veggie and cheese filling. Background is a regag cone and a flat shumeelah regag
Regag loaded with eggs, vegetables, and dollops of cheese shares the table with other crispy delights [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

So she set up to offer Qatari food, but for two months nobody came to eat and she made no money. Discouraging for someone who had just set up a new business with high hopes for it, but she kept going, according to Eman, cooking every day and distributing the food for free to market porters - the hammalis - and visitors from other countries who stopped by.

Then the Bidda Hotel had its formal launch. Sheikha Moza was invited to open it and was pleased to see Shams again, stopping to chat with her about her work.

Once again, Shams made it into the papers, business picked up, and she eventually expanded to set up a full restaurant in her current space, which takes up most of the ground floor of the hotel.

A photos of a wall of photos showing a smiling Shams with a number of peopls who have come to eat at her restaurant or who have honoured her along the way
Shams is proud of her famous guests and supporters, several walls in her restaurant are covered in photos like this [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Today she counts several members of the Qatari royal family among her customers, especially the Father Emir Sheikh Hamad who often stops by for a meal himself, to take a guest out, or just for a quick chat from his car as he is passing through the market.

It’s not just local dignitaries either, many of the international celebrities to have visited Qatar have stopped in for a meal and a selfie with Shams. The restaurant’s social media pages are a who’s who of visitors to Qatar.

Making beid tamat, and trusting yourself

A rectangular dish of tomatoey scrambled eggs with a dollop of white processed cheese spread on top
Beid tamat is hit of comfort. Tomatoes simmered slowly with spices and herbs are the base of this quick scramble [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Beid tamat is hit of comfort. Tomatoes simmered slowly with spices and herbs are the base of this quick scramble [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Putting aside the regag bread, whose ephemeral crispness is an intimidating feat best left to professionals to achieve, we were left with several dishes that a home cook can whip up at home. Like that delicious beid tamat, was there a secret? How was hers so much better than the average tomatoey scrambled eggs made in so many homes?

Tell us, Sitt Shams, how do you make your beid tamat?

No-nonsense all the way: “Trust yourself, do what you like.

“You cook the tomatoes, with onions and any other vegetables you want, and add the spices you want, salting as much as you want. When everything seems cooked, you add the beaten eggs and just cook them up. See? It’s simple.”

With “as much as you want” as the central instruction, beid tamat is likely constructed in layers of flavour, with finely chopped onions sweating out first, then chopped peppers - if you’re using them - going in for a beat before the chopped tomatoes. Wait on the tomatoes until they become jammy and seem to be hugging the other vegetables - season at this point. Just before the eggs, add in a handful of chopped parsley, coriander or dill - or a handful of a mix of the three - if you have it and want to use it. Then in go the beaten eggs for a quick swirl on the heat. Don’t overcook them, you want creamy eggs that merge with everything, not hard rubbery curds. Then you’re done, processed cheese optional.

The key is to trust yourself, with everything. Shams doesn’t subscribe to the idea that cooking is an elite secret that only a few can access. She believes that inside each one of us is someone who knows exactly what they like to eat, and if we let that person speak without worrying about precise recipes and measures, they will be able to make just the right dish.

That’s what she does every day, and the result is a hit.

Shams moved into her current location in the Bidda Hotel in 2014 [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera