x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Getting to know the Abu Dhabi fish market

The National Day and New Year break provided a welcome opportunity to explore the capital and rediscover some of its treasures.

The National Day and New Year weekend was going to be a long stretch of a weekend if I didn't know what was in store.

Apart from the festivities on the Corniche, the beautiful winter had set in and it was once again time to explore Abu Dhabi.

So I re-visited one of my favourite haunts in the city: the fish market in the Port area. A few friends piled into a car, and we set out on a Saturday morning. I've been there before, but always for work, to the extent that I actually missed out on having fun there. To me, the fish market epitomises this city; hard-working people selling fresh, local fare at quarter of the price of fish in the supermarkets.

The place stinks, but it is the kind of smell the nose gets used to in less than five minutes. It is perhaps also a case of sensory overload when you see the abundance and variety of catch. Abu Dhabi waters produce a fascinating array of fish that I am sure even an expert would find interesting. There's also shrimp that is brought in by trucks from Dubai and the northern emirates, as well as lobster from Oman.

But overwhelmingly, the men who sell the fish are Indian, usually from the state of Kerala, where fisheries is one of the primary businesses after rice and coconut farming. Now, given the lure of better salaries, they call the Abu Dhabi shores their home.

In the market, when I was unable to recognise a type of fish, I got three names for it from these guys. An Arabic name, a Malayali one and then an English name which sounded like a mish-mash of the other two. In some corners of the market are boards with illustrations of the fish and their proper English names. But if you are unfamiliar with the local variety, even that stops making sense.

So you simply follow your instinct and watch what the regular buyers are haggling over. My friends and I were a bit alarmed by the amount of fish some of the families were buying. It seemed like it could feed a few dozen families. But turns out, on the weekends, families come together to buy large quantities of fish and grill them together in the outdoor barbecues, holding impromptu picnics in parks all over the island.

After we managed to snag a king fish (king mackerel) and a kilo of shrimp, we trekked off to find my favourite grill king, who resides within a tiny corridor of grill shops within the market. Ahmed, my smiling Egyptian friend, told us to return in half an hour and in that time had prepared the most delightful baked shrimp with a dose of his "secret, magic sauce".

We were so hungry, we parked ourselves in the nearest park on the Corniche, and sopped it all up with flat bread that I had bought from one of the shops in the grill area for 75 fils each. It was the perfect brunch and the best celebration of its kind, befitting a a green island teeming with fish.