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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  1. Wow, I am learning things about Abu Dhabi, I never would have thought. Unfortunately for me, I have not found a fish monger with the quality that you are talking about. Need to keep looking

  2. Hammour is a lovely fish but is seriously overfished in the UAE and Middle East as a whole. As a result, it is very close to extinction and should not be eaten.