Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Hammour, Mon Amour: Fish (en)Counters in Abu Dhabi

Hammour fish at Lulu's fish counter
Abu Dhabi, UAE

From the first time I walked into a grocery store in Abu Dhabi, I've wanted to write this post (this is my Abu-Dhabi-Fishmonger-post, in case you were wondering).  Having a long-standing love for and appreciation of seafood, fish and fishmongery (please see here and here and  here), I make it a point to seek out and investigate the best and most interesting places and practices everywhere I have lived with regards to the aforementioned selling and eating of fishy things.

In New York I shamelessly frequented Agata & Valentina, an overpriced gourmet grocery on the Upper East Side, mostly with an Italian-leaning and a wonderful Asian fishmonger named Kenny, who could cut fish to the gram.  Apart from that, I never had time to find a better fishmonger and mostly ate seafood in restaurants, because I mostly ate in restaurants.  Ah, single, disposable-income-heavy life in the city.  Good.  Old.  Days.

In London, Waitrose did a decent job of offering up the usual suspects: salmon steaks and the odd seabream or Dover sole.  The nearest good fishmonger to me (besides the Friday fishmarket at the church by Putney bridge which I never made it to!) was in Clapham Junction on Northcote Rd at a tiny little street stand.  And whenever I did manage to make it over there of a Friday, I loved to get cockles, prawns, and all sorts of good whole fish for decent prices by London standards.  Of course I could have spent buckets of money buying my fish at any number of gourmet shops in Chelsea, but to be honest, on the whole I was never very impressed with the fish selection in the UK.  As Rick Stein points out, it seems all the good British seafood gets sent straight to France, where people have a palate for more than "fish n chips."
In Abu Dhabi, I never made it to the (semi) legendary Mina fishmarket at the port, because the first time I tried to go there it was on a blisteringly hot summer day, I had Roman (who was grumpy) with me, and the smell of the place almost knocked me over (and I was in the car, with the a/c on).  Instead, I went straight to the two largest supermarkets, where I'd be doing the bulk of my grocery shopping: Lulu and Carrefour.  And what I saw at Lulu that first week in the Middle East, completely shocked and inspired me.
 * * *

Top 6 Reasons I Loved Lulu's Fish Counter
Abu Dhabi location, Al Wahda Mall
Shopping for fish at Lulu, Al Wahda Mall
6. Proximity.
Something I truly hate about shopping at most supermarkets versus shopping at regular fish markets is the way that the consumer is systematically distanced from the product, through processing, through packaging, through physical encasing.  In most supermarkets there are glass cases separating shoppers from the fish, not allowing them to closely examine, smell and touch the fish the way they would at a real fishmonger, at a real fish market.  
In the UAE, the fish are prominently displayed in an open display case, and there are boxes of rubber gloves (and trash cans for the used gloves) lining the display, encouraging shoppers to slip some gloves on and have a feel, a sniff, a real, good look.  And after they've inspected (or not) to their hearts' content, they can buy or move on.

5. Convenience.
The fishmongers at Lulu can perform any type of cleaning on your fish and seafood that you want.  In the UK I'd get dirty looks from the fish counter workers when I asked for my whole fish to be filleted or cleaned or cut into steaks.  God forbid!  And half the time, they actually either didn't know how to do what I was asking or they did it badly.  It got to the point where I used to scale my fish a second time around after getting home.

In Abu Dhabi, the workers are efficient, professional and usually pretty fast.  They will do anything from filleting to normal cleaning to deveining with the shell on or without.  And there's never annoyance or attitude.  In fact, they take your fish, print two stickers, and give you one to come back with when the fish is clean, after you've finished your other shopping.  Highly convenient.

4. Freshness.
I rarely saw old fish at the Lulu fish counter.  That's more than I can say about meat counters at places like Carrefour, but the fish counter was always moving at a high rate of turnover at Lulu.  The fish always had clear, glossy eyes.  They smelled of the sea.  And they were being bought up more quickly than I'd ever have imagined.

Abu Dhabi used to be a sleepy fishing village, full of pearl divers and bedouins, so the locals do have a taste for seafood naturally.  But add to the mix a huge Asian diaspora - born and bred fish-eaters, especially the Filipinos, but also the Indians, and you've got the perfect fish counter storm.  I practically had to elbow my way to the front of the counter sometimes.  And whether it was soft-shell crabs, small or jumbo prawns, or barracudas, the fish were flying off the ice.

3. Variety.
Yes, you read right: barracudas.  And shark-fish.  And parrot fish.  And red snapper and seabream and angel fish.  And a million other fish I'd never seen or heard of, much less at a fish counter, before.  And NONE of them were in fillet form.  All whole, all beautifully whole and fresh off the boat.  
barracudas at Lulu
They had every size of shrimp and prawn (head-on only), cuttlefish, calamari, octopus, and it was the boring old salmon and tuna steaks that were relegated to the prepackaged display cases, in their safe, sanitary Styrofoam and plastic wrap, waiting to be plucked up by some unsuspecting white woman with her hand sanitizer at the ready, ready to be cooked to death and then roasted just a little longer just in case.  Kind of funny, actually.

2. The DIY Element
shoppers choosing fish
So the rubber glove phenomenon I mentioned above was not only meant for inspectional purposes. In the UAE you were encouraged to not only inspect your own fish and seafood, but also to select and bag it.  I really and truly delighted in being able to inspect and wiggle and choose every single shrimp in my order.  I once spent the better part of ten minutes chatting with an old Lebanese man about the seabream, as he systematically picked every single one on the display up and wiggled it (there were about 30 or 40).  He gave me a lesson on finding fresh fish (he maintains its red gills and not clear eyes that show freshness - oh and the smell of the ocean).  And when he was done choosing, after demanding they bring more fish out from the back, the display was almost instantaneously fixed and re-iced.  Love it.  Why can't we have this option in the US?

1. Hammour, Mon Amour!
In the UAE only one fish is king.  A beautiful large grouper known as Hammour fish.  You see it on every menu, at every hotel buffet, and it is prominently displayed at every good fish counter.  It is usually sold at a pretty large size and is an impressive culinary centerpiece when cooked and served whole on a large platter.  

I had Hammour for the first time at the Al Raha Beach Hotel Friday Buffet in the first month we were in Abu Dhabi, and it stayed with me because of its thick, delicious texture, not too fishy and not too bland.  Last month, I also had the pleasure of having a delicious whole, small hammour at the chic but decidedly overpriced seafood restaurant in Muscat's Chedi Hotel as one of my last meals in the Middle East.  It was roasted whole and served with a preserved lemon sauce and a side of sauteed baby courgettes.  It was a fitting way to pay homage to a fish that was a constant presence during my time in the Middle East and which will continue to be a food I love for years to come.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Goodbye Abu Dhabi! Goodbye Middle!

Rockin' in Ras Al Khaimah
It's such a tiny island, in such an inhospitable place.  Its whereabouts mean nothing to almost everyone I ever knew and yet its footprint on the world - and me - is there.  It's a place of contradiction, ostentation, beauty, warmth, and more contradiction, most of all fundamentally rooted in the fact that nobody but a few desert nomads dared ever live here until oil money brought air-conditioning.  Its people are mysterious, to  give you the short of it, and bring me to complete awe - because in two generations they have gone from abject poverty, from pearl divers and hammour fishermen and desert wanderers who treated camels better than humans, to nothing short of full-blown desert oligarchs who love aviator sunglasses, Burberry, and, of course, dates.  Who knew I'd have the chance to live here?  Who knew that when I didn't even know where the UAE was, much less WHAT it was only a year ago, I'd be thrust into the very heart of it, into a strange surreal life of expat aloofness, of semi-Arab culture, of desert allure.

And yet, here we are again, in those bittersweet last weeks of inhabitance - actually, on the last night of them - in a place that was never quite home, but isn't really not home anymore either.  The goodbyes are endless and inevitably repeat themselves time and time again, in a vain hope that if you pretend not to finally really say goodbye you'll see some of these people - your friends, and somehow also your family - again.

No matter how excited you might have initially been about the new opportunity elsewhere, the newness of moving again, the adventure and the thrill of the unknown, you inevitably become nostalgic for things you never knew appealed to you about the place in which you reside, and reflective on the many cultural and quotidian impressions that will remain with you for years, even a lifetime, to come.

There are goodbye drinks (mostly mocktails), goodbye dinners (mostly involving sheesha), last playdates (at Al Wahda Mall, of course), last weekend trips (to Oman, incidentally), and even last trips to the favorite supermarket (Lulu) or corner of the city (the Corniche).  You discover new things you wish you'd known about before (Masdar City and Sumo Sushi), and start to inadvertently send a text to a close friend (that's you Rachael) suggesting you go there next week, when you realize you won't be here anymore next week.  And it's little things like this that make moving, no matter how much you complain about or even kind of dislike a place, difficult, and (dare I say it?) sad.

Abu Dhabi has been such a strange experience - disarming and enraging and amazing in equal parts.  When we arrived here, still suffering from bad customer service and inefficiency whiplash from our experience in London, we were so wide-eyed and bushy-tailed and eager to learn and enjoy and love the Emirates, that we largely ignored the bad things for a very long time, which actually worked in our favor.  Roman had just learned to walk two weeks before our plane landed in Abu Dhabi; he was saying only a handful of words and was mostly only tacitly (and, let's face it, vaguely) aware of anything going on around him.

Now that we're leaving, only 9 months later, Roman is running and jumping, speaking in sentences, and thanking contractors and grocery store cashiers for me when we leave a place or receive a service.  He doesn't actually own a jacket anymore, and he only has two or three pairs of pants (most of which no longer fit).  He hasn't worn close-toed shoes in months and I don't remember the last time I put a pair of socks on him (wait, yes, I do, Christmas in Connecticut).   Personally, I've made the permanent switch-over to wearing nothing but flip-flops, pretty much every single day, no matter what, and I even got Matt to agree to me buying him a pair of frat-boy-esque leather flip-flops from American Eagle, which he now dons proudly, while grilling or at the beach. 

There's so much that's comfortable about our lives here, so much that I will miss dearly in many ways.  And the only and really best way to tell you about it is through one of my lists.  Here it is.

* * *

Top 5 Things I'll Miss About Living in the Middle
East, that is
Abu Dhabi, to be exact

Iftar at Emirates Palace

5. The Flash (just a little :)).
Me and the flashy side of Abu Dhabi have a love-hate relationship.  A rather large part of me unequivocally feels it's over the top, selfish, ostentatious, fake, and even wrong in many ways to completely embrace and unquestioningly accept the luxuries that living in Abu Dhabi offers up to most Westerners.  The labor situation and the painful and appalling issues of class in this country are reproachful and ultimately one of the big reasons Matt and I couldn't stand living here much longer.  But, that said, sometimes I truly do love indulging in the pleasures of a five-star hotel, the immaculately clean and manicured lawns and gardens and pools, valet parking literally everywhere you go, and no need to pump your own gas, ever. :)  

It feels nice and exciting to be treated like you're special, and to live in a city where everything is pretty and clean and new.  On the other hand, it does start to get tiring and boring to never be expected to clean after yourself in a mall food-court (or any other public place).  And it seems very unnatural that everyone's children here are raised by foreign live-in maids.  Plus, I can't say I ever think it's necessary or justified for someone's entire job to be to stand in a public bathroom and clean the stall and toilet directly after every single person who uses it (they are sometimes even waiting outside the door, sadly).

But I loved the Atlantis Hotel on the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai, I loved the glitzy Souk Qaryat Al Beri near the Shangri-La, Abu Dhabi (and the spa at the Shangri-La is awesome too).  I completely reveled in the uber understated-luxury of the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, especially the Lebanese Restaurant and it's amazing outdoor sheesha-bar. I felt like a rock-star when I had a drink at the SkyLite Bar at the Yas Hotel the other night.  I love Marina Mall, and despite not liking the decor, did feel a thrill in going to dinner at the Emirates Palace.  We all like to be pampered sometimes. :)

4. My House
I loved my Abu Dhabi house.  It is the first house Matt and I have ever had, and it was such a pretty house, not to mention a welcome breath of fresh air after cramped NYC apartments and mildewy London flats.

Yes, it was located in an entirely artificial compound off-island from Abu Dhabi, but it was so tastefully done!  All the houses are desert colors, and our particular one had a small but infinitely charming courtyard right in the middle of it, lending light to every room, and instilling a little bit of freshness with its trickling water feature and our lemon tree.  I also loved the big airy rooms with giant windows, most of which opened entirely, floor-to-ceiling, to the open air.  I loved my white linen curtains, that flowed in the breeze.  And I loved my tiny but extremely practical kitchen, in which I cooked comparatively few exciting meals but still, it was a place where I discovered Syrian cooking, Lebanese spices, and baked with Ghee for the first time.  I loved my front patio with my giant Frangipani tree, the white flowers blooming and wafting the smell of colonial decadence into my tiny, private oasis.  I loved the sprinklers going off every morning, and watering my potted plants with Roman every night in the summer.  What a beautiful place we've been lucky enough to live in.

3. Desert-y, Abu Dhabian-y Things.
I love sandstorms.  I love seeing the colorful sand swirling on the road in patterns when the wind blows.  I love the dunes, the endless dunes of the the Empty Quarter.  I love the camels that wander 
along highways just miles outside of Abu Dhabi or Dubai, and the small ramshackle camps made for them with palm-leaf tents and a few date palms for shade.  I love dates too.  Especially the ones with almonds stuck in the middle.  I loved seeing families breaking the fast at Ramadan, in the moonlight, under the shade of date palms, at the park or even on the grassy side-croppings of roads.  I love the Grand Mosque in its pristine whiteness and the aquamrine-azure of the shallow Persian gulf waters.  I love seeing white-clad men and black-clad women glide, seemingly unshaken, in unbearable heat.  I love Maqta bridge and its rickety glory, and the wading waters below where the Bedu used to cross by foot with their camels to Abu Dhabi island.  I love the way every time I smell frankincense, or drink coffee with cardamom, or hear the Adhan - the call to prayer - , I'm taken back to some intangible but very Abu Dhabian, desert-y place and time, a time now of the past.

2. Our Father Zayed.
There is a giant billboard poster just at the end of the Corniche in Abu Dhabi, right before Emirates Palace Hotel, with a picture of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founding leader of the UAE as a modern entity.  It is placed at a busy intersection, just after an idyllic beach and just before the UAE's flagship uberluxury hotel, juxtaposing sand and city, past and present, today and tomorrow.

It is gigantic.  And glaringly white.  And the black and white picture is beyond the normal.  It is epic.  With a colored-UAE Flag flapping in the background and a pristine white khandoura, and igal.  He looks like a strange mix between Jesus Christ, Jafar from Alladin, and...well, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. And below the larger than life leader it reads, in giant black letters:

Join us in honoring him

I'm gonna miss that. :)

** Note: For a selection of amazing pictures of the Sheikh, go to **

1. The Middle Eastern Warmth.
On the obvious end of this one, yes, I'll miss the painfully wonderful weather the UAE gets from about November to April.  It's just so pleasant to walk out to your car, out of a non-airconditioned house, into a car that you could theoretically avoid the A/C in as well (if it weren't for the permanent presence of powder-like sand in the air).  It's wonderful to go to the beach in the middle of January with your two-year-old and not worry that he'll be cold.  It's wonderful to walk to the playground every night with Roman to swing and slide and not worry about huffing and puffing about snow boots or layers before going out.  Will I miss the summer? Nope.  Will I miss the no-eating-no-drinking in public of Ramadan?  Well, technically yes, because I will no longer be here by then.  Ha. :D 

On the less obvious end, I'll miss the warm welcomes of friends who were as eager to meet and know me as I was them.  It's hard to find people as in need for friends and support as a group of newly arrived expats in the Middle East, and I'm glad I had to the chance to both be a part of and contribute to the small, tightly-knit circle of culturally-diverse vagabonds residing in the capital of a tiny oil-rich country located on the Persian Gulf, in any small way.

* * *

Some dear memories and impressions from our time in Abu Dhabi

watering plants
Atlantis Hotel, Dubai

Aquaventure, Dubai

Iftar feast, Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi

The Empty Quarter

Riding Camels, Qasr Al Sarab


Casting a spell at the liquor license office.

Eating ice cream with his best friends.

Buying a carpet at the Blue Souq, Sharjah

His Liwa.

The Mosque from the Fairmont

El Sombrero Mexican Restaurant  & Obama

Meet & Greet the Camels, Ras Al Khaimah

A Date Palm, Abu Dhabi

Cornice Beach

The Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi
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