x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 October 2017

Your guide to seafood in the UAE

With the opening of the Waterfront Market in Dubai, we delve into the region’s taste for seafood and the local offerings

A group of men watch as a fish worker skins and cleans a lemon fish at the Abu Dhabi Fish Market in Mina.  Delores Johnson
A group of men watch as a fish worker skins and cleans a lemon fish at the Abu Dhabi Fish Market in Mina. Delores Johnson

People in the UAE consume approximately 33 kilograms of fish every year, according to a recent report published by Hotelier Middle East, which is more than double the global average. If that comes as something of a surprise, perhaps it is worth noting that due to the extremes of climate we experience here, it’s rather difficult to grow anything in conditions that aren’t artificial.

But the seas we are surrounded by are positively teeming with life and food doesn’t get much more nutritious than fresh fish. So, if you’re left frustrated by the selection of frozen seafood in your local supermarket, perhaps after being inspired by a meal at a restaurant or viewing a cookery programme, what can you do to enlarge your palate in the UAE?

In many countries, the symbolic “death of the high street” has seen the steady demise of the traditional fishmonger, but we never really had those streets to begin with.

Before the discovery of oil, this nation’s economy was built on the pearl trade and fishing, so it’s unsurprising that fish is still incredibly popular. It’s back in the headlines, too, with the recent opening of Dubai’s Waterfront Market in Deira, which has replaced the old Deira Fish Market as the place to go for fresh seafood, presented in an abundance that has to be seen to be believed.

One of the most famous spots in old Dubai, the old Fish Market was a veritable institution, having been a hive of activity and funky aromas for more than six decades. Open sided, with grey concrete floors and a smattering of air-conditioning units that struggled against the ambient temperatures, helped by furiously spinning ceiling fans, it might not have been the most fragrant of venues (which might explain the signs on Dubai’s Metro that forbid the carrying of fish), but it was an authentic throwback to a time before glistening skyscrapers and five-star hotels with their themed restaurants and celebrity chefs.

For some visitors to the new facility, which covers an area of 104,373 square metres, the hustle and bustle old-school appeal has vanished, which is a definite downside. “It wasn’t the most hygienic place,” says Canadian expat, Catherine Wallace, about the old Deira Fish Market, “but it was wonderfully atmospheric, always an event. You’d get used to the smell after a few minutes, but one thing that never left you was the friendliness of everyone there, whether they were selling or buying. This new place is obviously much better in many respects, especially when it comes to the hygiene aspect, but it’s more supermarket than souk now. It even sounds different in here.”

Plans for Waterfront Market were announced in April 2013 and it’s finally open, with the fish traders being the first into the new premises, soon to be followed by the meat, poultry and fruit and vegetable sellers. There are plans to open stores and restaurants on the premises and, as you approach from outside, the entire place looks like a smaller version of the UAE’s shopping malls.

The sounds referred to by Wallace are the hammering of knives into the fish as they’re filleted, which used to reverberate around the more open Deira marketplace like some malfunctioning beat box that could never keep perfect time. Now, there’s a relative hush in the cavernous, spotlessly clean sales areas that, from above, almost resemble the arrivals hall at Dubai Airport’s Terminal 3.

Alexi Mostert works as the development chef, overseeing the menu and kitchen for the Bull and Roo group, which runs such Dubai luminaries as Tom & Serg, The Sum of Us, Common Grounds and Brunswick Sports Club.

He says the new Waterfront facility is a huge improvement over the old Deira fish market. “It’s a much more simple process nowadays, with the market dictating the price – rather than spending time haggling with traders, you know exactly what you’re getting and how much it will cost.” He says that, while the pricing is obviously keener than supermarkets and fluctuates daily according to supply, it’s the taste advantage of buying fresh that outweighs all else.

“I can’t stress this enough,” he advises. “No matter how good the quality of frozen fish is, it doesn’t compare to fresh. I advise buying at around 9am, which means the produce hasn’t spent too long sitting on ice [he says it can ‘bruise’ if left on it all day] and the huge variety of seafood we get from our own waters means we can be more adventurous with our cooking, too.

“Unfortunately, most of the top restaurants in this country still insist on importing frozen seafood from countries like Japan, or from Europe, which is just unnecessary, not to mention damaging to the environment. Taking a trip to the fish market, will always be better for everyone.”

In the capital, the Mina Fish Market enjoys a reputation similar to that of the old Deira market, being located near the marina, which is off 20th Street. Again, the fishy aroma gives the game away, but get used to it, and the benefits will soon become manifest. Split into three distinct areas, Mina offers places to buy fish, have them cleaned (for a fee you can have them scaled, gutted, filleted and washed) and a third, where you can have your purchases cooked for you. Like the Deira market, the variety of seafood on offer at Mina is astonishing, meaning it can cater to multiple nationalities, many of whom have grown up with fish as a staple part of their diet.

Summer months, though, mean heftier prices, as the fish are more difficult to catch. “They prefer colder water,” says Mohammed, a trader at Waterfront, as he takes the head off what looks like a hammour, “So they swim deeper in the summer to escape the warm water. In the winter, they swim near the surface, so there are easily caught. This means the prices are better, sometimes half of what they are in the summer”.

Indeed, Waterfront is gearing up for half a million customers each month.

Take a tip from the experts, get to market nice and early (mid-morning at the latest) and buy fresh.

It’s what your taste buds would want and it helps keep alive one of the most important cultural traditions.

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