Name that fish
A visit to Deira fish market in Dubai and how to cook yellowfin seabream.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is visiting the fish market in St Peter Port Guernsey where I watched in fascination as my aunt poked a live lobster with the strap of her handbag to make it move. Brought up on battered cod, fish fingers and tinned salmon, I sampled any sea food I could get my hands on once I flew the nest including a sea urchin plucked from the Mediterranean, eaten with a teaspoon like a boiled egg.
Was it these early memories or my extreme curiosity that motivated me to tiptoe out of the bedroom in the pitch-black, early hours, camera in hand, trying not to wake KP? As I opened the door to the kitchen my dogs looked at me with bleary eyes and incomprehension. I walked out into the street to the clear sound of early morning Friday prayers to meet Rajani. Five minutes later we were peering through the dark to see house numbers and Sarah appeared from the shadows of her garden. Although prior to this we had only met each other online, there was no silence from then on as we glided through the deserted streets of Dubai we covered so many topics from wine to India, ending up in a food blogger rendezvous to the pink glow of dawn.
The fish market in Deira was easy to find from the brown information signs and the seagulls circling in huge flocks overhead. As soon as we all emerged from our cars we were beset by men in blue overalls pushing wheelbarrows and one adopted us becoming our friendly shadow for the next hour.
Attractive fresh fruit and vegetable stalls line one side of the market but I was eager to enter the main attraction. The fish market is a covered area with open sides, lit by fluorescent tubes and as I rounded the corner I was completely overwhelmed by the volume of fish. Mounds of silver, shining ones, long thin black ones, blue-tinged crabs, gleaming squid, freckled, pouting hammour (a type of grouper), serried rows of prawns. I can’t imagine the sensory overload of the vast Tsukiji fish market in Japan. This was enough for me.
I quickly realised how little I knew about the types of fish accentuated by Sarah’s pretty good knowledge of what things were (comparing things to what she buys in Australia). I suspect in England, because of the almost total demise of fishmongers and the prevalence of buying fish already filleted on a polystyrene tray, we’ve become disassociated from the original beast. Apart from identifying a hammour, some sardines and the odd snapper, I was completely bewildered by the varieties and array. I expected to be knocked out by the smell but it was just like standing by the sea – Carrefour smells three hundred times worse.
We started buying. You agree a price (this is precarious), the fish are weighed on ancient and primitive scales and your wheelbarrow man whisks it away for cleaning, filleting etc. For a group wielding cameras this was a great service. The cameras did attract some interest and merriment – many of the men posed and joked otherwise there was no hassle. The fish sellers were keen for us to buy, shouting out their stall numbers ‘remember stall number 32…come back’ and they helped as much as they could when we asked the names of the fish but I can’t say we were any the wiser most of the time. Many have colloquial names like belt fish (anyone know how to cook one?) but I didn’t spot much that looked like the sustainable choose wisely varieties of ‘pink ear’ emperor or ‘sordid’ sweet lips.
At the end of the market, small trucks were being unloaded, hemmed in by eager crowds – whether they were buying or watching I couldn’t tell but there was the barking shouts and hub-bub that surrounds excitement with the seagulls wheeling overhead. The gills of some of fish on the stalls at this end were still moving and the small baskets in which they lay still stirred with the remnants of life.
One side of the market looked onto a building which advertises an aquarium but we focussed on the stalls displaying tuna, swordfish and other giants of the sea. The men held up the decapitated parts and it was much more gruesome that the piles of little creatures but the meat was gleaming, moist and appealing.
Regimented rows of crustaceans of graded colours and sizes gave way to an area of dried fish, ochre shapes hung in patterns and plastic bags were full of crisp cubes and miniature fishy morsels. I was massively impressed when Sarah bought some for Sri Lankan fish curry.
The contrast to manicured Umm Suqeim made me feel I was on holiday, not just 30 minutes drive away. I’m ashamed to say this is my first visit in over 10 years of living in Dubai.
Will I return? You bet. The fruit and vegetables reflect what is in the supermarkets (i.e. mostly imported) but a lot fresher and in some cases cheaper. The dates in the dried fruit section were excellent quality. The fish, if you keep your wits about you, can work out to be great value and if you go at the right time (7am on a Friday morning in this case) it has almost swum out of the sea. I’m planning my next barbecue already so I can cook some of the immense and beautiful prawns and Omani lobster.
I’d have no problem going on my own but it was great fun with such a lovely group and I learned so much from my companions (from which setting to put my camera on to the best way to cook tofu!).
As we drove out of the car park in the full glare of the sun Mr Wheelbarrow walked towards us smiling and waving. Maybe he took a shine to us (it couldn’t be anything to do with our complete naivety and the amount of dirhams we handed over to him could it?).
Things to remember if you visit Deira fish market:
- You need to pay for parking even though it’s a Friday.
- Try to have some idea of what you should pay for the fish before you go (even if it’s a supermarket price) – the stall holders will hold out for the maximum they can get but will accept a fair price.
- You pay extra to have the fish cleaned.
- Expect to get a hang-dog expression from your wheelbarrow man whatever you give him (we totally fell for this, although he was so nice he deserved it and it was part of the experience).
- Despite the choose wisely campaign there was an abundance of fish that are under threat such as hammour and kingfish. The counter dedicated to sharks was a bit disturbing too. Do your homework and help preserve UAE fish stocks. Commonsense is better than quotas – see what is happening in Europe on Hugh’s Fish Fight.
A few more of my New Year resolutions
- To keep discovering (as Emirates Airlines says!). As a long-term Dubai resident it’s easy to feel you’ve seen and done everything.
- Learn more about fish varieties and what to do with them.
- I finally got out my Nikon and some of my pictures are ok but I wish I’d taken these ones. I’ve booked my beginners photography course at Dubai Ladies Club to start next week.
The fish I bought is called the Yellow Fin Bream (see pic above) and belongs to the Sparidae family (similar to the grouper). Maybe I just fell in love with its pretty face and markings. I forgot to tell Mr Wheelbarrow (and our lack of a shared language may have made efforts to communicate this fairly difficult) to keep the skin on the fillets so I covered each fillet with baking parchment and cooked them on top of sliced baked potatoes with the fresh herbs from the market and my garden.
Yellowfin sea bream are good grilled or baked whole (well-cleaned and gutted) and flavours like capers, lemon or lime, garlic, parsley and ginger offset the slight sweetness of the flesh. A dressing made with lime, lemongrass, chilli and coriander with fried sea bream is just perfect – all ingredients you can buy if you are down in the Deira Fish Market.
In the meantime if anyone can name any more of these fish…(and I don’t mean Freddie)
You can view more images here.