We've bypassed spring and are straight into summer (not that there was any kind of a winter really). The temperatures are into the nineties during the daytime and already I am thinking about how any outdoor activity will soon be relegated to the hours between 9 PM and 7 AM. But missing spring I am thinking longingly for the opening of the farmer's markets at home.
I've lived here nearly ten months and, though I've enjoyed many meals from it, I had yet to go to the Abu Dhabi fish market. Or vegetable market. Yesterday was my virgin voyage, taken by my veteran flatmate, Melissa. More than actually buying fish and vegetables (the supermarkets here have a good selection already) I was excited to get some good photos and try out the new camera. When I travel I always make it a point to get to the local markets where the produce and people are so colorful. Yes, the smells and stares are often uncomfortable, but those are always outweighed by the energy encountered there.
I had visions of a third world fish market: braced myself for some pretty nauseating smells and panhandling. I had forgotten this is Abu Dhabi. Not a third world country in the least. It's a new country (younger than I am). The market was as clean and cool as the fish markets at Pike Place. The fish market is indoors in a climate controlled facility which helps keep down the stench. Yes, there are scales and bloody colored puddles in places on the floor. And yes, it definately smells like salt and a bit fishy. But no flies. No gagging stench. No questionable quality.
The two blondes in the building did stand out a bit and we were the target of the fish vendor's attention. "Madam. Prawns. Hamour. Beautiful for you. Fresh. Come, come, see." We really were only hungry for fresh calamari, which we purchased from one of the first tables. One kilo for 20 dirhams (About five-and-a-half dollars), which was bagged up for us. I took some pictures of the tables of fish.
Lots of small sharks, fish of all shapes and sizes (well except salmon), small softshelled blue crabs, prawns of several sizes (except small). The most favorite local fish is a Hamour which we often order grilled in the local restaurants. While the fish were quite photogenic, the people were a little less so. I've mentioned before that we are careful to photo people in the UAE. Many Muslim's are not pleased to have their pictures taken, especially the locals, and we have heard many stories of cameras being confiscated if this is not respected.
While I didn't see alot of women in local dress at the market there were many men in dish-dash (the traditional white gowns and head dress sported by the men here) so I was pretty careful not to take too much. We did see some small clams wich we snagged as insipiration to make some clam chowder (now if we could only procure a good loaf of SanFrancisco sour dough). Other lovely fish I will have to come back for at some later date.
The next stop at the fish market is in an adjoining section where there are several small shops that will clean and cook up your purchases.
In these small shops, through the order window, you see a Pakistani or Indian at the back with the lowest job of cleaning the fish. Then the Syrian's or Iranians or other middle class middle easterners are at the cook stations working hard. Most of the fish are opened up, seasoned and put between two racks to be placed on the grill. Other items (like our calamari) are tossed in seasoned flour and fried.
The heat coming out of the kitchens is incredible and we marvel at the cheerful moods and clean color coordinated shirts of the men who are working in that heat. Most want to pose for me when they see I am taking pictures. As I am taking pictures in this area, if there are women around I leave the camera hanging stomach level and point and shoot in the general direction hoping to get something nice: still just taking at their backs as I don't want to get their faces without permission.
While our calamari is waiting to be cooked we wander into the halls and find the dried fish section.
We buy a few bottles of water and look at the limited vegetable stands here. There are some very small, hot and crowded cafes where workers can get a good fish meal for little money. These aren't the kind of places where women would eat, especially two unaccompanied blonds, but we are VERY content to have been able to pick out really fresh lovely fish and have it all cleaned and cooked for us.
It's Friday morning when we are here and the major Mosque prayer starts in a few hours. Lots of men are shopping and getting bags full of fish which they drop off to be picked up around 3:00 for a big family meal after the service. Once we have gathered up our lovely fresh Calamari (where Melissa has impressed the whole cook shop with writing her name in Arabic for them) we head out of the maket.
As I am walking out I hear shouting behind me "What are you doing here? What are you doing here?" I realize that this shouting from a male speaking in Arabic accented English is becoming intense and directed at us. I'm thinking "shit. It's the camera and I am in trouble" so I keep walking without turning back. Finally Melissa turns around to see it is Ali F, a client at our government job. He has a reputation of being rather difficult and though my encounters with him have always gone fine he does tend to make us all nervous. But he seemed genuinely impressed to see us there and happy to find us out of context. When we explained that we had come to get fresh calamari and had it friend up and were ready to go off and eat it he asked rather increduously "now?" Apparently we are doing things a little out of order. He will come back at 3:00 to pick up his cooked fish. But other than that we did the encounter OK.
Next stop: fruit market. Same part of town as the fish market but not within walking distance, especially given the traffic and heat.
The fruit market, like the fish market, is clean and orderly. Not many people here at all. We are looking for onions and potatoes for the chowder and lemon for the calamari.
The fruit is all imported (too hot to grow things locally) and too neatly boxed and arranged. We talk them into showing us what they are hiding in the back and in the refrigerated sections. Also in the back men are assembling lovely fruit baskets (100- dirhams each, about twentyseven dollars).
Of course we end up with other things not on the list. The dill lookes especially lovely: (I have no idea what to make with the dill I bought).Some rambutans and some new fruit we try and then buy: small fuzzy green pods, not too sweet, that you dip in salt before eating.
In just a few weeks I will be perusing the olive markets of northern Italy. There I will not stand out as an exotic foreign visitor and I will feel free to take camera shot after camera shot. But I am glad to now know the markets of my temporary assignment. The ability to take the fish straight from the vendor to the cook and walk away with a fresh fish meal all ready to eat is fabulous. I'll be back.