2022 World Cup: How tacos, homemade salsas and Mexican cuisine are feeding hungry fans

DOHA, Qatar -- Although Mexico's men's national team is out of the World Cup, the country's impact remains strong. El Tri fans have stuck around to watch knockout round matches, with countless Mexico jerseys and flags seen on the streets and in window shops. And interestingly enough, Mexican cuisine has emerged as a prevalent food option in Qatar.

Mexican gastronomy in Qatar is literally and metaphorically miles away from that in Mexico or the United States, but around occasional corners and plazas, it's not too difficult to find tacos, burritos and even a refreshing glass of agua de jamaica, made from the petals of hibiscus flowers.

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These examples are just a small sample of the larger impact across Qatar, a country mired in criticisms ranging from human rights issues to questions on how it won the bid to host the World Cup altogether. Focusing on food can feel trivial in light of these issues, but it can also help put a separate spotlight on what's happening beyond the confines of the stadiums and FIFA-designated zones.

Once the World Cup is over and millions leave, the culinary postcards will remain, providing a lasting impact that was here before the tournament began.

A 'little piece of Mexico' for hungry World Cup fans

Following in the footsteps of family who had already lived in the area, married couple Silvia Gonzalez and Gilberto Hossfeldt both realized something when they moved to Qatar from Mexico in the early 2000s: there was nothing that tasted remotely close to the meals they had back home.

"It was horrible," Gonzalez said about the Mexican food they found, which sparked an idea. "We half-jokingly said 'what if we opened something' to our Mexican American friend, who is married to a Qatari man.

"It eventually became a reality."

By 2013, they all took a chance on Viva Mexico, a restaurant that now has two locations here in the country's capital -- one in The Pearl neighborhood and another in Msheireb.

"We wanted to open something authentically Mexican, where it feels like you're actually eating Mexican food, not something that seems like it," said Gonzalez, seated at the Msheireb location.

They brought over tortilla-making machines and key ingredients like guajillo peppers and achiote. Creativity was needed for some elements that were expensive to ship or not up to the standard they wanted, leading to purchasing items such as cinnamon from Sri Lanka and hibiscus from Sudan, all to bring that small slice of their culture.

"It's really rewarding for us to see people be surprised to find a place that's a little piece of Mexico, because we've adorned them [the restaurants] with traditional decorations that are very representative of the country," Gonzalez said.

"The cushions, the decorative plates, the art, it's from Hidalgo, Puebla, Guadalajara, different spots. It shouldn't just look Mexican; it should actually be Mexican."

It rapidly won over not only Qataris and tourists, but most notably over the past few weeks, Mexicans and Mexican Americans who have visited during the World Cup.

"What's surprising to me is seeing people from our country arrive in the Middle East and look for Mexican food. We've realized we're really faithful to our cuisine. Turn around and you'll see them in our restaurant right now," said Hossfeldt, who pointed to a group all wearing El Tri kits inside.

If you ask the couple, it has been a gratifying but massive challenge to take a chance on their venture. Along with the complications that have emerged through finding ingredients, they've noted that red tape for opening their restaurants and high cost of operations have made things burdensome along the way.

It all remains worth it though after not being able to find good Mexican food when they first arrived, and in the past several days, they've provided much-needed culinary therapy to El Tri supporters through the means comfort items like tacos de barbacoa.

"Part of our success is through the excitement of people who say 'this tastes like Mexico.' That's what we're searching for people to tell us. It makes us proud," Gonzalez said.

'Amazing way' to combine two cultures

Originally from the Mexican state of Guanajuato, Aisha Rodriguez also recognized a severe lack of her favorite food when she arrived in Qatar. After converting to Islam in 1998, she moved to the country a year and a half later, noting a dearth of options she could have easily accessed back home.

"There were no tortillas or any Mexican food at the time I arrived," Rodriguez said. "It was something I really missed."

Thanks to visits from her mother -- who packed bags of corn flour, spices and peppers in her luggage -- she was soon able to enjoy some of her most cherished meals. Then in 2017, she began selling homemade salsas at a farmer's market, where she got "amazing" feedback from customers who told her to sell more Mexican food.

Motivated by those who eagerly purchased her products, she added offerings (sopa de arroz, frijoles de olla, picadillo, pico de gallo, guacamole). Demand began to grow, and in January 2021, she was offered a chance to run a small stall in the beachside village of Katara.

Thus, La Mexicana was born.

"Tacos with authentic corn tortillas are my passion, the simple authentic Mexican taco," Rodriguez said. "We make our own tortillas and that makes me very proud."

When the World Cup began, Rodriguez temporarily hosted a Mexican soccer fan who happened to be fellow cook. Alex Morales, a taquero and owner of Tacos El Vaquero in Chula Vista, California, briefly worked at Rodriguez's stand as an initial plan to showcase the tacos he sells just north of the US-Mexico border, while also attending matches as a fan on his off days.

"I promoted myself in a Facebook page [with] people from Mexico who were coming to the World Cup," Morales said. "I got referred to La Mexicana."

He ran into work visa issues shortly after arriving in Qatar and eventually needed to halt the taco-selling part of his dream (he's still in the country watching games), but it was there with Rodriguez's business that he at least had a chance to momentarily be involved in the region's food scene.

In recent days, La Mexicana also had some coincidental support from an image of a Mexico national team player. Next door to Rodriguez's compact establishment and within an arm's reach away, a mini Adidas pop-up shop with a photo of midfielder Edson Alvarez opened around the start of the tournament.

Somehow, in the middle of Qatar and countless hours away from her place of birth, people now walk past the image of the El Tri star, tacos in hand.

"To be the Muslim who never stopped being Mexican and combining these two, my practice of religion and my job cooking Mexican food, is an amazing way to deliver both cultures and the best of each other," Rodriguez said.

From California farms to Qatari supermarkets

It's not just the food being made in Qatar, but also the produce itself that has an ongoing Mexican theme. While an ingredient like cilantro isn't tough to purchase nearby, others have to make a lengthy journey.

For example, strawberries as far as Watsonville, California -- a predominantly Mexican and Mexican American city -- have made their way to Doha supermarkets thanks to the efforts of farm workers from that cultural community and the greater Salinas Valley.

"They're more likely than not to be soccer fans, and if they are soccer fans, they're very likely to be Mexico fans," said Antonio De Loera-Brust, a spokesperson for the United Farm Workers, about the US-based laborers who picked the strawberries. "America is a food exporter and that all comes down to the contributions that farm workers make."

And those contributions are massive.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, $9.7 million worth of fresh fruit (2,146 metric tons) were exported from the United States to Qatar in 2021, marking a sizable growth of 249% over the past 10 years. Other agricultural exports such as tree nuts, processed vegetables and soybean meal have also been on the rise.

"Just think of the geography of where it is," said De Loera-Brust about the need for Qatar to import produce picked by Latinx workers from 8,000 miles away.

And at a World Cup where the plight of migrant workers has been front and center, it's a smaller but nonetheless poignant example of the contribution of laborers.

A few years back, De Loera-Brust was told a story about some farm laborers who would watch clips of the 2018 World Cup in Russia while working in the fields. Within the sunflower fields and out of sight, they crouched down, pulled out their phones to watch their favorite players.

Many workers are likely doing the same on those Salinas Valley fields, perhaps unaware that even though they're halfway across the planet, they're part of a wider connection to the World Cup via the produce they are picking.

Whether that be through the ingredients needed to make authentic tacos or by a packet of California-grown strawberries, it's all connected.