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Zhen Kitchen: A Chinese family’s restaurant legacy in Doha

Doha, Qatar – About 20 years ago, in a land far far away, a young Ma Zhong Yan decided to leave Shenyang, China, to make her fortune in the world. She wanted a new start for herself, her husband Zhang Bin and her daughter Zhang Jia Ni.

So she talked to a friend, whom she still refers to as her “sister”, and together they decided they would try their luck in the United States, they had heard many success stories from there. The next step was to speak to an agent who arranged work visas, so they found a guy who knew a guy who knew an agent, and a conversation was had. Everything was agreed, and the agent said he would get them visas to the US asap.

But things rarely work to plan, and the agent could only get visas to a place they had never heard of before: Doha, Qatar.

a wok caught mid-toss over an open flame
Zhang Bin gets some wok flare as he stir-fries morning glory over a special flame [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Today, sitting in her restaurant in Doha’s West Bay, Zhong Yan says she’s still not sure how that happened, a soft smile on her gentle face that glows in the afternoon sun. But, she says, cradling a cup of green tea, she’s glad things worked out the way they did. Even considering the pain of having to leave her husband and daughter behind so she could go start a new life for them.

They’re both here with her and Zhong Yan is coming to the restaurant less often, taking a bit of time to herself now that Jia Ni has taken over managing it while Zhang Bin oversees operations in the kitchen.

She came in specially to speak to us and looks relaxed, sitting next to our friend Grace who has come to dinner to help translate. The cosy setup makes us feel like we’re visiting her at home rather than at the family’s newest venture, Zhen Street Kitchen. This is their second act after they had to close their first restaurant – a cult favourite among those Dohaites in the know – Playstation Cafeteria.

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