It’s more than a little too early…

I can hear the muezzin to the north, and he is soon joined by the east and south. It can’t be more than 16 degrees, and my heat-accustomed body is shivering despite a cardigan, jeans and boots. It is predawn, still dark, and there is morning fog dimming the lights in the distance. A Keralan Christmas Star is flashing above my head – a beacon for my new bloggy friend. I wonder for just a moment if it’s possible that this lady I have only previously met via the internet could actually be a big burly man with an axe in his backpack, but no – establishing a cover so thorough as to include a blog at least a year old called “My Custard Pie” is more than a likely too much to ask. And sure enough, she is exactly as I expected (and more), and arrives with Rajani (eatwritethink), another foodie on this fishy adventure.

Yes, today we visit the Deira Fish Market.

The sun rises over the Dubai skyscrapers as we make our way North and away from our westernised suburbs, and as we emerge from the Shindaga tunnel it is in broad daylight, and in “old Dubai”. It’s not hard to find the fish market – just follow the seagulls that flock in cyclone formation over the tin rooftops.

I step out of the Pajero over fish-oil patterned puddles in the carpark, and immediately we are met by a very short man with a very large wheelbarrow. He fights all the others to get to us, because as westerners we are a prize. He knows that we will pay more than the others because we have absolutely no idea what we are doing, and so he defends all our polite refusals and follows like a dedicated disciple. Luckily he warns us that we need to pay for parking – it’s a daily thing here, no weekend exists at the Deira fish souq.

The carpark is a jungle, full of slop and noise and people and tooting and wheelbarrows and cars trying to run me over. My custard pie and I are the only white faces I can see – even our companions are of Asian decent, and are prattling cleverly in Hindi to Wheelbarrow-man. Into the belly we are swallowed, passing chicken and egg stalls, stacks of hessian rice bags and then the fruit and vegetables. Green herbs lay piled by the thousands, and fill my sinuses with mint and coriander – finally I am starting to awaken. We are hussled through by our guide, who throws his pointer-finger like a punch in the direction of the creek. We pass pyramids of fat pink radishes and dusty Saudi potatoes, and a tiny opening full of men in blue garb finally leads us through to the prize.

It’s like a hall of death to Rajani, who as a vegetarian can barely stand a couple of minutes – we have to pass the meat lockers on the way – plastic strips the only barrier between us and 400 hanging carcasses that look too small to be fully grown. Inside men haggle and wave cleavers around, and I’m glad I’m sticking to sea-meat today – it looks far to dangerous for me in there.

The fish souq is about the size of an olympic swimming pool, maybe wider, and has eight lanes of white-tiled stalls covered in ice, polystyrene boxes and (duh…) fish. Not only are we the only white faces here, but we are the only women. There are men everywhere, and though we thought we were coming here for a new experience, I think they are all getting more out of it than me. Every stall we pass, I am greeted with toothy grins and a man holding a fish up for me, and it takes me a while to realise that they don’t want me to buy it, they want me to take their picture. They all want to see the result, and I spend more time looking into the LCD screen of my camera than at the scales and fins that surround me.

The first aisle is the hardest. It is the home of belt fish and sardines, sultan Ibrahim and other small fish, and little blue crabs. But it’s the sharks that get me in the guts – barely a metre long, covered in blood, standard issue and hammerheads. At the end of the aisle I make my first purchase – a 2kg hamour at 70 dirhams, so fresh it is still flapping. I mean it. Also known as the orange spotted grouper, it is able to survive many different types of water, hot, cold, sandy, salty, muddy, and apparently a complete lack of it too. Unfortunately it is not able to survive the Gulf fisherman,  as it is the prize fish of the region, and entirely over-fished – I’m sorry, I’m a bad, bad girl. Here Wheels comes to the fore, grabbing the squirming beast and throwing it in the barrow and taking my filleting demands in translation from the vendor – or at least I think this is what is going on.

The Creek end of the souq is where the fish are brought in, and is conducted on the back of utes with the standard noise and aplomb of the region. Wire baskets that must contain 40kg of fish are thrown about like basketballs, and taken into the guts of the souq for resale. One large hamour jumps out right at my feet, trying to make a run for it, but the world is against it, and he is returned to his death sentence with little ceremony.

It’s getting busier, and I am finally seeing some women, but not a single one out of an abaya. The centre has turned into a multi-coloured maelstrom and I skirt it, opting for the outer aisle. Here I find Sheri, Fersh and Butterfish, also known as Pink-eared empreror, Supreme and Black cod (in that order). If I had known that earlier, then I would have bought the pink sheri – it’s on the good list for the environment, but the Fersh looks good, and considering it’s an anagram for fresh, that’s what I get at 25 dhirams a kilogram. Further up are the game fish – massive tuna, kingfish, sharks and salmon, being sold by the cutlet. I am offered it raw, but decline – I haven’t had breakfast, and I usually need a glass of wine with my sushi.

Rounding the corner and completing my lap, I find the dried fish off to the left – in pretty geometric blocks in shiny plastic, or de-boned sides of whole fish that look like pieces of art to hang on the wall. I purchase a bag of something that looks like tuna but has another name and I find out later is shark, for 5 dirhams – to add to chili and other spices and potato and onions later – mmmmm.

Finally I reach the shellfish. Not a huge variety – we are in a warm climate here, but wow, the quality is astounding. I am confronted by the biggest prawns I have ever seen – pink as a frankfurt, and striped like a tiger, and over a foot long. They are 80 dirhams a kg, the 25cm tigers are 65, and the 15cm ones I buy are 35/kg. There are smaller ones for 20 dirhams a kg. Fresh prawns for $6/kg! Small, but seriously, that is great value. There are also Omani Lobster for 70 dirhams a kg – a fantastic buy, as they have no claws, so you are only paying for tail meat and head. I usually buy them from Carrefour at 90 and think that is good value. In honour of my new foodie friends I have included my recipe for the best way I think there is to cook them at the bottom.

We have a full wheelbarrow and a tired pusher, so we leave, purchasing a few veggies on the way out – seriously fresh stuff, shiny, crisp and perfect. Hunger has got the better of me, so I buy sugar bananas off the stalk and dried dates at 10 dirhams a kg, and down them with a hot sweet cup of chai that Wheels has managed to find for me from god-knows where. We wait while he organises cleaning, filleting, peeling and de-veining, and then meet the others back by the car.

It is 9:30 and heaving, and I’m glad to be leaving. We each pay Wheels for his kind work, far to much because he has caught us hook, line and sinker with his act. I realised too late that I should have confirmed the cost at the beginning and bargained for my fishy purchases. But no matter.

I return home energised and empowered. I am going to be chef supreme! But maybe a little nap first….

The trip was organised by uber-foodies, Sally at My Custard Pie and Arva who “lives in a frying pan”

Barbecued Omani Lobster with Garlic Butter
Remove heads of lobster, split the back halfway with scissors and remove anything not white. (or get Wheels to do it for you) Wash and pat dry.
Stuff cavity with black mustard seeds (about 1/2 tsp) fresh tarragon and a knob of butter. Season lightly
Throw on a medium-hot barbecue, belly down (not the split side) and lower the bbq lid if you can.
Turn after five minutes – will curl on its side, so turn again five minutes later.
Will be red when cooked, and meat will have lost its translucency.
For the garlic butter, simply crush garlic and cook on a low heat in a melted butter and oil mix for a few minutes. When cooked add salt and an enormous slab of butter.
Serve with steamed rice and drizzle garlic butter all over everything in great quantity.
Cholesterol heaven….

10 thoughts on “The early bird catches the fish”

  1. BBQ-ed lobster with garlic butter…hell yeah. Love your style of writing, you've captured the chaos so perfectly.Man, should have got wheels to get me a cup of chai too. I didn't know that was part of the package!(btw, not sure if we got the same mid-sized Omani prawns, but stall #13 was offering them for a post-haggle price of 25/kg. Wheels had a tendency to pull us to his higher-priced friends, but running a price-check against the others made us realize that we may be paying double commission at his preferred fishy stalls.)

  2. As usual, you pulled me into the moment. Almost gagged at the meat carcass bit, I'm with Rajani…Have you ever considered going incognito to some of the places so you don't stand out so much? I wonder how the experience would be different…

  3. I think I like the story of you meeting up with other blogger foodies and taking this on as a team just as much as the market story. Nice piece of writing, Sarah!

  4. Chai comes from a small canteen at the back of the veg section – to the right of the date stalls. They claim, to white faces, not to do food – that's a lie as you can get dhal or channa with parathas to go along with your chai for a small number of dirhams. Not sure of the etiquette of women in the canteen but there are spaces outside and you'll be fine, provided you're in tablew sharing, big smiles mode.

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