Over the past two years, Dubai’s food market scene has been steadily growing and is now in ripe health. Yet for some time, despite a longstanding fishing tradition across the UAE, we have still resigned ourselves to having only one dedicated fish market near the Gold Souk in Shindagha. This year, fish is getting a consumer-friendly shake-up in Dubai, with plans mooted for an upgrade to the existing Shindagha market, in addition to not one but two new and more centrally located fish markets. Following the launch of the first new market Souq Al Bahar 4 Fish in Umm Suqeim 1 back in January, the project has been successful enough that a second branch has just been opened in Jumeirah 1.
Umm Suqeim’s fittingly named market, (it means ‘market of the seas’ in Arabic) may be a little tricky to find on the first attempt, but once discovered, you’ll find a covered outdoor area that is far smaller in size than the original Shindagha market, and may feel like a more accessible shopping experience for most. It looks, smells and feels like a newer venue, and while there are plenty of salesmen ready to help you buy, the level of typical souk hustle is on a significantly smaller scale than the average experience at Shindagha.
It is the market’s managing director, Dubai-born Mohammed Al Shamsi, who’s responsible for opening the fish markets in his home district of Jumeirah. For Mohammed, this new project represented a logical business move given the lack of fish markets in the emirate, especially in more central areas of town: ‘There was only Shindagha, this is only the second market. The other market takes you one hour to get there, and one hour to get back. Dubai needs more markets,’ he enthuses.
Aside from Mohammed, most of the people we meet at the market are from Kerala (a region of India that is famous for its own fishing culture). Mohammed explains that each of the salesmen at the market work independently, buying and selling their own stock from the fishermen directly. Each morning, the fish are bought through an auction (where the exact weight is not actually known until after purchase). ‘Live’ fish, direct from the nets, generally arrive at the market around 6.30am each morning, while new stock typically arrives at the market once or twice every day. Interestingly, exactly how much the salesmen buy at auction to sell to their customers varies throughout the month. ‘At the end of the month, for example, people have less money, so they buy less. Not many people come shopping on a Sunday, but Friday is very busy,’ Mohammed explains.
Bearing testament to this, during our visit on a weekday morning, only half the tables at the market are stocked with fish, although there is plenty of variety available. Friendly Keralan salesmen talk us through the selection, which includes faskar, koffer, schaam, laisar, sheri, sea bream, sardines, white mullet, white tuna, hammour, kingfish, safi, jesh, prawns (including monstrous, huge ones) and squid. Generally the ‘local’ fish at the market comes from the Arabian Gulf, although, surprisingly, there is also Atlantic salmon available, flown in from Norway. When lobster is available, it comes from Oman (from the Indian Ocean), while the prawns are from Oman, India or Pakistan. Typically, ‘the prawns are caught in the morning, flown here in the morning and arrive at the market the same night at around 11pm,’ says Mohammed.
Prices change daily, depending on the abundance of fish available, and Mohammed is keen to emphasise that the mark-up at the market is minimal. ‘There are five types of air, and the condition of the sea and the amount of fish depends on the air.’ For example, he explains, on a day when fewer fish are available, sheri might be bought from the fishermen for Dhs30 per kg, and sold on at the market for Dhs35 per kg. On a more typical day, the cost would be closer to Dhs15 per kilogram, and sold to the customer for Dhs20 per kilogram. ‘If someone buys a two kilo fish, and it is already Dh75, he thinks this is expensive. But it is a fair price to pay the fisherman, because it costs him money to fish – to buy the bread, to pay his team – and it is hard work.’
Now and traditionally, the fishermen in the UAE use two methods to make their catch. The first involves nets, which are left overnight, when there is no moon. In the darkness, the fish cannot see the nets and the air bubbles emitted within the net look like small particles of food, causing the fish to swim quickly towards the bubbles and into the nets. In the morning, the nets are raised. The fishermen modify the nets throughout the year, changing the size of the holes, seasonally, depending on the size of the fish during this time of year. The second method uses a ‘gargoar’, a steel cage that lies at the bottom of the sea for three days. Inside, the fishermen place bread as bait. Using the gargoar, Mohammed says, is harder work, and they require more maintenance because the water corrodes the steel.
While not all the fish species we see at the market are deemed sustainable by the EWS-WWF Choose Wisely campaign, Mohammed offers some enlightening information about the government’s involvement in promoting sustainability in the region: ‘The government is very strict with the sea, with cleaning, with giving money to the fishermen. They are doing a lot to keep the fish in the sea. They are giving millions of dirhams towards this.
‘They support the fishermen, give them free engines [for the boats], and free gargoar nets. Some people used to catch hammour with a gun, but they have stopped this. In April, the kingfish swim away to where the sea is cold and deep. The government stop people from catching kingfish now, because you will only catch a mother [carrying eggs]’. Souq Al Bahar 4 Fish, 8d Street, behind Jumeirah Beach Road (take second right after KFC and Mirage Islamic Art Center) Umm Suqeim 1 (no number).
If a visit to the fish market gives you an appetite, you can stop at this new seafood restaurant nearby. Located in an idyllic spot, facing the fishing harbour and boats, Seaview restaurant specialises in fish and seafood dishes and also serves a ‘catch of the day’ selection of fresh, whole, local fish, which can be cooked in a number of styles. According to the restaurant, it sends out its own fishing boat to make the catch each day.
Umm Suqeim 1, Fishing Harbor, off Jumeirah Beach Road (04 333 5552).
View Shindagha fish market
View Where to buy fish in Dubai
View How to cook your catch