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Name that fish

January 7, 2011

A visit to Deira fish market in Dubai and how to cook yellowfin seabream.

The fish market, Deira

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.

Deira fish market Dubai

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.

Omani lobsters and shining king fish

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.

fish at the Deira fish market Dubai

The Choir

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.

Yellowfin sea bream at Deira fish market Dubai

Fish that moved and yellowfin sea bream

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.

Deira fish market Dubai

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.

Deira fish market - dried fish

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?).

The wheelbarrow men

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.

Man at fish market serving prawns

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)

crabs

You can view more images here.

39 Comments
  1. January 7, 2011 6:32 pm

    Wow….looks like I missed quite an experience. I’m jealous!!! The photos are fabulous! I especially liek the one of the fish with yellow tails! I’m guessing you’re sticking to your new year’s resolution and used your DSLR! Please plan a trip again soon because you’ve totally convinced me to wake up at 6am!

    • January 8, 2011 7:51 am

      It was painful emerging from sleep at that hour on a Friday but totally worth it. Repeat visits planned for sure.

  2. January 7, 2011 6:41 pm

    Looks like a great trip out! So glad you tried your camera. Your pics look good but you will be amazed in 12 months time when you look at your pics and see how much you will have improved. Just tiny steps will make a difference. Just photograph everything! It’s free after all. Beautiful fishies. The Wayfarer photos are truly stunning.

    • January 8, 2011 7:53 am

      Thanks Claire, I’ve beaten the fear-factor that was stopping me from using it and now can’t put it down! Realise how much I don’t know and on the first step of a journey. It’s great to learn new things though.

  3. January 7, 2011 6:47 pm

    Wish I was there!

  4. January 7, 2011 7:01 pm

    love your post, and images are excellent. love that yellow tailed fish. you are so committed – made the post so fast. my blog is still in bad shape and am trying to fix it ever since i returned. it was fantastic meeting all FiA foodies, big hug.

    • January 8, 2011 7:56 am

      It was great to meet you and thanks for the really nice comments. I had to write this up immediately because I was still buzzing with the experience. Meanwhile the Christmas decorations are still up and my book club book unfinished! Hope your site recovers soon.

  5. sandpitdiaries permalink
    January 7, 2011 7:50 pm

    Wow, that was fast! Still making notes.
    Bought too much – the hamour and prawns had to go in the freezer. Researched “Fersh”, which is the variety the fishmonger named my purchase, and it’s on the red list. Bugger. The pink eared emperor we were looking for was there, it’s actually the same as all those rows and town of pink Sheri. Bugger again. Constantly thwarted by deficient intellect.
    Yummy fish curry for dinner, but too tired to eat it. Bugger thrice. And sorry for swearing on your blog, it was required to demonstrate my state of mind.

    • January 7, 2011 10:15 pm

      I must get your fish curry recipe. Welcome to swear on my blog anyday – your comments are always so interesting.

    • January 8, 2011 7:57 am

      Buying sustainably is a bit of a minefield there. It’s easy when faced with a few varieties at Choitrams but on that scale….!

  6. January 7, 2011 8:59 pm

    Watching all that fish, I have to ask: is there any fish left in the sea :)
    Our fish market looks like a single stall of this.
    Do they sell all that lot? It’s quite impressive!

    • January 7, 2011 10:17 pm

      That did cross my mind too – somehow they must sell a great deal of it. My pics of the fruit and veg didn’t come out too well but that was equally extensive.

  7. January 7, 2011 10:07 pm

    Look at you, a same day post!! This was so interesting that I actually read it all of my blackberry, plus I was super curious to know how the photos from your new Nikon toy turned out. My fav one is the one of the wheel barrow boys! :)

    Really informative, and as always, very thoughtfully written.

    • January 8, 2011 7:59 am

      Sorry we lost you in the melee. The comments from your Mum made me laugh and I can’t wait to see your post.

  8. January 8, 2011 8:53 am

    Thank you for sharing such a wonderful adventure. I’ll never get there so good to see it thru your eyes.

  9. January 8, 2011 9:16 am

    wow talk about fish! i’ve never seen anything like that before!

    happy new year :)

  10. Tanja permalink
    January 8, 2011 9:51 am

    Loved reading your post, Sally. I’ve been to the fish market, but never early on a Friday morning. I can tell you that later in the day the smell will knock you out. I would love to come along next time you go, if only to take photos. I’m terrified of having to cook anything, nevermind fish!

  11. January 8, 2011 10:06 am

    Sally, wow … u gals looked like you so had fun! SOrry I had to miss it becos of work :(

  12. January 8, 2011 4:53 pm

    A fascinating read and inspiring too! Let me know when you’re next going – I’d love to join your merry band :)

  13. Anna permalink
    January 10, 2011 4:07 am

    I never knew that one of your vivid childhood memories was a Guernsey lobster – my memories of Guernsey are being sick, and falling down the stairs!.. and you mean to say your most vivid memory wasn’t swindling me out of one million dvongs, or playing ‘Movie Maker’? lol

    • January 10, 2011 8:51 am

      I’d forgotten Movie Maker! Make us a cup of tea Anna!

  14. January 10, 2011 8:27 pm

    I’ll wake up and SMILE at the crack of dawn Sally if I were to be treated to something as fun as this! Well done…fabulously covered, and a gorgeous post right down to Mr Wheelbarrow-man! Loved it! Have a wonderful 2011!!

  15. January 10, 2011 8:43 pm

    Your pictures look pretty good to me even before your course but I’m sure you’ll get loads out of it. I’ve not been to a big fish market before, I’m not sure I can handle being up early enough to make it to London’s Billingsgate!

    • January 11, 2011 6:59 am

      Thanks Sarah – that’s a really nice comment. Getting up that early was torture but worth it.

  16. Shirley@kokken69 permalink
    January 11, 2011 6:17 am

    Awesome! I would love to visit the fish market if I get a chance to go there. But the problem I have with such fresh produce market is… I would want to be able to buy everything and cook…! Impossible to do when traveling…

    • January 11, 2011 6:59 am

      Yes, self-restraint was difficult Shirley, especially having the wheelbarrow with us!

  17. January 11, 2011 12:15 pm

    I absolutely love the fish market in Dubai. I drag my mum there every time I visit! Waking up at the crack of dawn is really worth it. After the fish market it’s always on to the Spice market! Seriously the next time I visit I see us doing a lot of fun things together!

    • January 11, 2011 1:37 pm

      You’re on. I’m dragging my husband next!

  18. January 13, 2011 7:26 pm

    Oh I loved the markets in Deira! It interested me a lot more than the beach resorts and high-rises!! Great pics – and great resolutions :0 All the best for 2011!

  19. January 14, 2011 7:09 am

    wowowwowo!!!!!I love this! i feel like i could spend a week there and learn and learn! I know next to nothing about fish and have no idea what kinds of catches come from the Gulf; in Beirut, we bought some fabulous-tasting shrimps from Oman: the tastiest I have ever had!

    • January 14, 2011 9:28 am

      I know what you mean – I think I’ve got a long way to go to learn about all these varieties of fish and the best way to cook them. Fun trying though. The Omani lobster is great.

  20. May 18, 2011 11:11 am

    This is amazing! I have never been to a fish market of this size, it looks like sea world in San Diego

    • May 18, 2011 2:21 pm

      I must say it was quite overwhelming….but great fun.

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