Mina Zayed: the old man and the seafood

From break of day, the fish market is full of clamour and characters. Suryatapa Bhattacharya reports on a fishy business.

Elisabeth and Jason Tolentino, from the Philippines, haggle for the freshest fare.
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ABU DHABI // Even before dawn breaks, the capital's fish market is a cacophony of verbal warfare, with salvoes of furious commotion ringing out over the day's catch. The clamourous exchanges between fishmongers, auctioneers and retailers at Mina Zayed market echo the special language that resounds at fish markets the world over. It begins around 3am. Fishermen return from a night at sea in their boats by the dozen, laying out their catch in neat rows.

Hammour, catfish, shark, mackerel, squid, crab, pomfret and smaller fish are set out in huge lots. Some are priced and carted into market while others are bought on the spot and hauled off in lorries to restaurants. Shrimp and lobster caught off Dubai and the Northern Emirates arrive for sale a bit later. By 6am, the racket of negotiations has given way to the crashing of the bins of ice that will pack out the fishmongers' stands.

In one corner of the market, workers scale, gut and fillet the fish. N Mohammed, wearing black-framed glasses, red overalls and trainers, is one of the market's veterans. He will not reveal his age, but his salt and pepper beard, his dexterity with fish and his impressive array of knives - moving deftly as he scales and fillets the fish - leave the younger men around him looking heavy-handed. "Fish is expensive these days," says Mr Mohammed, originally from Iran. "Because of the wind and the heat, they like to hide in cooler places in the sea."

Not far off, at counter number 55, Mohammed Fouaz, 25, from Kerala, is being crowded out by savvy shoppers looking to bag the freshest fish at the 6.30am "morning price". Like other fishmongers around him, he is used to smiling for cameras and posing with the day's biggest catch. Every Tuesday, busloads of tourists throng the wet, tiled floors of the market. "Want photo?" Mr Fouaz asks, smiling. He has been here six years, having honed his craft on the shores of Kerala before joining his cousins in Abu Dhabi. "There are fish there, but the profit is here," he says.

Thursdays and Fridays are busiest, as families prepare for picnics and parties, seeking out fish for half the price and twice the freshness of the seafood sold in supermarkets. Jason and Elisabeth Tolentino, along with their children, Joseph, 10, Jeza, five, and Jayzile, three, are shopping a day after returning from holiday in the Philippines. As their parents haggle, Joseph busies himself by terrorising his little sister, armed with the cold, blue bags of fish.

About 10am, a commotion breaks out among the ranks of fishmongers. "The fish doctor is here," says Mr Fouaz as he packs more ice into his counter. Dr Mohammed Hasan, of the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, is doing his rounds. Dr Hasan is an inspector, but the men here have dubbed him "the fish market doc". "When the fish comes in, we check for quality, freshness and how they store them," he says. "If they are trying to hide a large quantity of fish that has gone bad, then there will be a warning or a violation charge."

Merchants can sell day-old fish, but only after inspectors ensure the food is packed in coolers for storage. There will be another inspection that evening. By 10.30am, sales have slowed, and now the grill shops are opening, each offering a choice of fish with the shop's own "special, secret blend" of spices. The market is soon to move to a more modern, indoor facility a few kilometres away facing Saadiyat Island. But at Al Sayat Fish Grill, Ahmed Kasin, 31, from Egypt, says that, no matter where the fish are sold, he will be out stoking the charcoal fire as the fish arrive. "In Abu Dhabi, they like fish," he says. sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

After decades at its current location, the fish market will soon be on the move. The stalls, docks and storage are being razed for a new mixed-use development. Originally, the market was to be moved from the middle of Abu Dhabi island to a new fresh market at Mushrif Mall. But the plan changed - although the reasons have not been disclosed - and fishermen will now be able to hawk their catches on a waterside facility, which includes docks, facing Saadiyat Island. The new indoor market will be air conditioned and modern, officials say. It remains unclear how many of the emirate's 1,600 or so fishermen will relocate. - National staff

Video: New fishermen's port In pictures: Fish market

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