"How many fish markets is it reasonable to visit on our honeymoon?" I asked my husband-to-be. "Three or four," he answered, and I nodded. "A day," he continued. This is why I married him. It's also why we spent the first morning of our honeymoon, a mere 36 hours after our wedding, wandering the fish souk in Dubai.
Fish markets make an exciting travel stop for food lovers because they offer a glimpse into the local food culture and a peek at the everyday routines of the local food industry. If you have a strangely-timed layover (there's not much else to do at six in the morning) or a weird case of jetlag (still awake at 5:15 a.m.?), the market's early-morning hours may actually be convenient.
With the exception of Tsukiji in Tokyo, Tekka Center in Singapore, and more consumer-oriented fish markets such as Seattle's Pike Place Market, few fish markets are huge tourist draws. In Dubai, the vendors are friendly and excited that you are interested in their fish, even if you're more likely to snap a photo than to purchase any actual seafood.
Rather than shy away from the camera or grumble about your being in the way of paying customers, the fish souk vendors here volunteer—even request—to pose for your camera with their wares, straightening the shrimp tails and thrusting dead sharks and octopi into your hands to make the best possible photograph for you.
The sun rising over the fish souk's seaside location bathes it in a golden light as vendors start unpacking. These folks work in the shadows of the early morning, mostly selling fish to middlemen who then resell it to consumers, whether at a store or restaurant.
At 5:15 a.m., when we arrived, most of the indoor stalls were set up, but an endless parade of fresh fish on ice was still being unloaded from vans, sorted, auctioned, and set up for display. Arriving this early is not a necessity (certainly, you'd get a great view of what's going on arriving an hour later), but it's interesting to catch the bustle and behind-the-scenes bargaining that goes on before the fish make it to the stalls.
These informal outdoor areas, like the indoor areas, were mostly pristinely clean. Men in spotless uniforms sold shimmeringly fresh fish, and the only thing conspicuously absent was the sort of smell one associates with fish. Each outdoor fish sale resulted in a mess of discarded fish parts, but uniformed cleaning people were close behind. Both indoors and out, though, the floors were wet with the quickly-melting ice on which hundreds of pounds of tuna, barracuda, and red snapper rested—wearing flip flops is highly recommended. Feet can be easily cleaned at the hotel; the canvas on your TOMS is more difficult.
When you arrive, the first order of business is to caffeinate. The best way to find a morning beverage is to ask someone who seems to be really enjoying whatever they are drinking. A man weighing out fish that bore a striking resemblance to Gill from Finding Nemo directed us to the (oh so creatively-named) Fish Market Cafeteria. The tea, the beverage of choice here, was murky and milky, warm, and oddly comforting despite the creeping heat of a soon-to-be 95 degree day.
The wild gender imbalance of the market's workers and shoppers stood out most prominently in the dense crowd of the cafe. We were at the market for a full hour before I saw another female—a pair of ladies shopping and another tourist. While a bit jarring, the lack of women around did not seem to have any effect on how I, as a female, was looked at or treated.
The market, though stuffed to the gills with blue crabs and yellow-striped fish, king prawns and sweet lobsters, is not very large. The parking lots on either side are teeming with pre-market fish sales. The west end is busier, and on the southwest corner is the Fish Market Cafeteria. The south side of the building is a fruit and vegetable market, very little of which is open this early. There are more outdoor vendors running along the northern, water-facing edge of the market, while inside row after row of fish vendor sells their wares.
The vendors kept busy straightening rows and stacks of fish, and, when they saw us passing, trying to come up with ways to get us to stop and chat. Usually this involved handing us a recently-deceased sea creature to hold.
But the most exciting interactions were when nobody was paying attention to us: negotiations between vendors, greetings to old customers, the act of weighing out fish—old school, using a basket of big metal weights to counter the fish in the opposing basket.
In the northeast corner of the souk, there's a small section devoted to a mind-boggling array of dried fish products. There are tiny dried shrimp smaller than a fingernail all the way up to massive sheets of ochre fish the size of my entire lower body, all hung in the sun and stacked or piled high in a barrel. Whole fish, fillets, just the heads, tails, and some ground to a powder; it's all here.
At the east end of the market, there is a fish cleaning station where rows of men stand, carefully and incredibly quickly zipping off scales and rinsing out fish innards. (This side of the market also holds butchers—goat heads or lamb brains, anyone?)
If you're like me, even all this raw fish will whet the appetite. Outside the market, on the northeast corner, is an outbuilding holding the most important part of an early morning fish market tour: breakfast. Grill & Shark Restaurant may or may not have a menu, and it may or may not grill food that may or may not include sharks. Our point-and-look hopeful methods yielded a "fish" (squid) curry and a "vegetable" (chickpea) curry, accompanied by rounds of light, flaky paratha.
In total, a visit to Dubai's fish market will take you about an hour including breakfast. If you're jet-lagged, you'll probably be ready for a nap, and if you're on a layover, this may help you sleep the rest of the way. And if you're sticking around Dubai and have a kitchen, don't forget to buy some of the bounty of sea creatures for a meal later—after 6:30 a.m. (once most of the wholesalers are long gone) the market is open for anyone to shop.