As the hum of an expectant crowd started to grow in the hour before another World Cup game kicked off, I stood in the distance, contemplating my choices.
After being tasked to find beer during a largely dry World Cup, I accepted another challenge that ensured my body would vow to plot its revenge against me down the road: Eating as many items from the concession stands at World Cup stadiums and the media cafes.
Why would anyone do this, you’re wondering?
Stadium food becomes a necessity while covering and attending a World Cup. Days are long, return trips to hotels for refreshments are few and far between and getting to games multiple hours ahead of kickoff is a must, meaning concession stands are the only option for many journalists and fans.
And more importantly, I like stadium food. Sampling new foods or different takes on the classics is part of the greater experience when I get to enjoy sporting events as a fan. After a summer trip to see the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field, I still talk about the Tipsy Polish sausage sandwich I had, which featured caramelized brandied onions, tater tots, brown mustard and pickled cherry peppers as an ode to the city’s Polish heritage.
At its best, stadium food honours local cuisine while taking creative turns. Of course, not every item of stadium food needs to go heavy on the gorge. Some of the sausages on buns that I had during a recent trip to Germany’s northeast to watch soccer were remarkably simple and a revelation. But as the sport itself continues to trend towards a “bigger is better” mentality, there’s nothing wrong with testing the limits of what you can stuff on a single plate if it includes an element of inventiveness.
For a World Cup that seemingly spared no expense, I wondered if the same approach would be applied to the food hundreds of thousands of fans would eat in Qatar. I ended up visiting six of the eight stadiums in Qatar and they all featured the same concession stand menu.
What I found revealed a lot about some of my lasting impressions of this World Cup.
The humble cheeseburger is one of the world’s universal foods: at its best, beef and cheese sandwiched between bread creates a special alchemy. And at its worst… it’s fairly hard to screw up, right?
I regret to inform you that I was very, very wrong.
Because, though it was called a cheeseburger, I am still unsure exactly what it was that I ate.
Without lettuce, tomatoes or any toppings whatsoever, the burger came out piping hot. A good start. But my fortunes quickly turned.
The texture of the substance between the buns was ever-changing, moving from soft to breaking down into a crumble instantaneously. I fear I will live out the rest of my days never knowing conclusively what exactly the burger patty itself was composed of.
The cheese had somehow disappeared into the patty; we can add “How did that happen?” to my growing list of burning questions in life. When I tasted the cheese I imagined this was how my young son, when he was teething, felt when he would gnaw on plastic toys.
And the bun? I wanted to wish myself good luck for the rest of my culinary journey, and while I couldn’t find any wood to knock on, I got the same sensation out of knocking on that bun.
Look, every burger does not have to be piled with pulled pork, grilled halloumi cheese or crispy onion strings. But it does need to taste like a burger.
A simple cheeseburger has value. Part of me respects the efforts of whoever designed this one for trying to keep things simple. But the other part of me knows it’s going to take a lot of simple burgers from here on out to erase the memory of this one from my consciousness.
Rating: 5/10, or similar to the U.S.’s World Cup performance — some potential, and lots of flashes, but ultimately, disappointment.
The Hot Dog
I have a few hard and fast rules in life, and at the top of that list is to never turn down free food. It doesn’t come around often, and as the father of a preschooler constantly on the move, relaxing meals are hard to come by. But I can confidently state that I broke my own rule after a few bites of this hot dog, and I’m not ashamed of it.
The hot dog is undoubtedly the most questionable item on the menu. Look, I’d happily muck over a few dogs on an open flame. There are a few hallmarks of a good dog: an emerging char, a juicy core that generally comes from the dog itself being a bit thick and a distinct, a salty taste that can bring you back to your childhood.
Friends, this dog is so remarkably devoid of those hallmarks that I’m convinced whoever approved it for mass production has never tasted a hot dog in their life — or at least knew they personally wouldn’t have to eat these. (I did inquire about who was responsible for the food sold at World Cup venues with a FIFA media representative but did not receive a reply.)
It was rubbery enough to make me question if anyone bothered to apply any heat to it. The bun-to-meat ratio was skewed so heavily in favour of the bun that after a few bites my mouth dried up, I was unable to carry a conversation with a colleague beside me.
A few bites later, a surprise! There were a few squirts of ketchup and mustard already in the hot dog, but after time they’d congealed into the worst shade of brown, and they do absolutely nothing to mask, let alone enhance, the taste of the hot dog itself.
I understand the hot dog is commonly associated with sporting events, but why was this hot dog sold in favour of something that local chefs might have been far more inspired by? Why am I starting to feel that when it comes to stadium food at this World Cup, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery?
Rating: 1/10, or similar to Qatar’s World Cup performance — they were there, yes, but didn’t add anything you’d want to remember to the tournament’s games whatsoever.
Now, I’ll admit to never having previously eaten a fatayer in my life, which is on me. It was sold to me by a colleague as a “Middle Eastern calzone,” and who wouldn’t want to dive headfirst into something like that?
My curiosity was dimmed when I realized I paid approximately $5 for a brick of bread.
The spinach fatayer wasn’t so much a description of the contents as it was a suggestion of ideals. I’m not a vegetarian but I felt myself growing upset on behalf of vegetarians with the lack of spinach in this fatayer.
The cheese fatayer did pack more of a punch: I’m a sucker for salty white cheese and I know I’m not alone. So while the fatayer is objectively fine, it looks and feels like the first thing a child would learn how to cook, and tastes like it.
But after the first few bites after opening the tin foil, the bread was already hardened. At this point in my journey, I’m starting to think my resolve needs to harden with it.
Rating: 4/10, or similar to Canada’s World Cup performance — punchy, and with plenty of potential and lots to build on but much more tinkering is needed.
The efforts to include a locally-inspired food item on the stadium menu are noted, and appreciated — after all, many of the journalists I spoke to in Qatar have made whatever shawarma is available around the corner from their hotel their go-to meal during the World Cup.
When I had a night away from a stadium, I ate plenty of delicious local cuisine around Doha. But my question here is this: In the future, how could local cooks help get in on the crafting of menu items like shawarma?
The shawarma is handy enough, making for the kind of snack you can grab and smash before you get back to your seat. And I was optimistic about the prospects of doing just that, especially after a colleague had talked up the shawarma as the highlight of the menu.
“It’s got pickles, it’s got veggies,” he told me.
I think this unnamed person either has an overactive imagination or he was served a completely different shawarma than I had.
The shawarma itself is appallingly tiny. I understand no one buys stadium food for its value, but that I could get a shawarma around the corner (Shout out Pasha Kebabs and Grill!) that was double in size and half the price just made me long for being back in my hotel room, which is the opposite of how I should be feeling at a World Cup.
There were no pickles or vegetables of any sort in this shawarma. Just dried out meat that had me dashing to a nearby water fountain, and what I can only hope was cheese as a topping.
It’s becoming more and more frowned upon because of health concerns, but there is something so satisfying about being able to personalize any meat-on-bread combination you order in stadiums around the world with sauces and pickled vegetables available to add at nearby stands.
Did FIFA not find a suitable tomato or onion sponsor? Do they demand stadium foods be as bland as Gianni Infantino’s white sneakers?
These questions don’t speak to my hunger, but a sense of existential grimness.
Rating: 6/10, or similar to Germany’s World Cup performance — the basics were in place and they deserved far better than their results.
By this point, I’m just sad.
Few things bring me joy like pizza does.
I have an outdoor pizza oven, I continually try to improve my dough with twice-weekly pizza cookouts, I obsess over finding the right ingredients. I’ve eaten in some of the most renowned pizzerias across Europe and North America, and the first thing I do in every city I travel to is find what locals believe is the best slice in town.
Am I asking for whoever created this pizza to have done the same? Far from it.
Am I asking for whoever created this pizza to have tried to inject some local flavour, literally and figuratively?
I suppose I should be amazed at the marvel of modern science in front of me: the cheese had somehow spread without any evidence of it being cooked.
Then, deep under the cheese, a surprise: Olives! Full credit to the chef for finding some toppings that every other food I tried desperately needed. Also under the cheese? Salami.
This was undoubtedly the thickest pizza I’ve ever eaten in my life, and I spent three days in Chicago this summer. In fact, I’m done calling it pizza. I refuse to associate something that brings me pleasure with the tremendous heartburn I’m going to experience for days after this.
Rating: 3/10, or similar to Mexico’s World Cup performance — trotting out what’s been done before doesn’t work here. Scrap it, and start anew.
Anyway, I’m still sad. I’m sad because there was an opportunity missed here. I’m left wondering if, after traipsing through downtown Doha in search of beer and bouncing from stadium to stadium eating the food they’re serving fans and members of the media, if I’ve missed out on finding something, besides the soccer itself, that was authentic in this World Cup experience.
Where was the creativity? Where was the food that was truly representative of the Middle East’s rich culinary history?
People around the world can look at the monstrosities that some stadiums in the United States serve and shudder, but at least it’s representative of that country’s inventive and engorging food culture!
This World Cup in Qatar, as I understood it, was in part an effort to show off a culture not previously highlighted by the world’s biggest sporting event. After seeing what’s offered for consumption at the stadiums, I was left wondering how they could have missed the mark by so much.
(All photos: Alexander Abnos, Joshua Kloke)