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  • Writer's pictureLiz Totton

Grocery Shopping: Abu Dhabi style: Emirates’ General Market & Al Mina Fish and Produce Ma

Map of Abu Dhabi

Map of Abu Dhabi

We zoomed through the city to the other side of town. The coordinates in our generally trusty Garmin were supposed to be guiding us to the port area. There I hoped would house all the unusual items end experiences for which I love to travel. After all, ports are truly the crossroads of civilizations, aren’t they? Here in Abu Dhabi near the port, you can find the produce, fish, pet, Iranian carpet, and plant souks. “Souk” is the Arabic word for market. I believe that authentic markets (where locals actually shop) are the places to explore the culture in which you are living. Skip the touristy markets and head straight to the places where locals actually shop to see an authentic slice of daily life and save money. Click here and here for two blogs with lovely photos of markets around the world: 

There we were as we hoped: the Mina Zayed Port of Abu Dhabi where our 15,000 pounds of stuff was cleared just two short weeks’ ago. We made it! We spotted the fruit market on the right. It was hard to miss: several football fields’ worth of fruits and vegetables and tons of Indian and Pakistani vendors just waiting for suckers like us who didn’t know what to do, exactly how to shop here or where to go. There was not an expat in sight to ask. I felt a bit like I did at JFK Airport in the terminal waiting for my plane here, like the only white person in sight with a million wondering eyes upon me. Even with our tans, we stood out like a sore, white thumbs. We noticed immediately that I was about the only woman out shopping here. It appears that local ladies do not do the family produce shopping (SCORE!! Something more for Rob to do. There is very little that I can do here for myself/by myself). We also discovered that I was ridiculously underdressed for this Saturday shopping excursion, but I’ll get to that.

Royal Food Stuff Produce Market

Royal Food Stuff Produce Market

First, we had to park. There were zillions of “shops,” which all seemed to be selling the very same thing: like nearly every fruit and/or vegetable in the world that you can name. One guy sold only watermelons, but most carried everything. He must be the melon specialist.

Watermelon Specialist's wares

Watermelon Specialist’s wares

The shops were teeming with “salesmen” shouting in broken English at us “Please park here, Sir” and “Shop at best market, Madam.” We parked in front of a shop that seemed to have a widest selection of just about everything.  I got out of the car and all the eyes of the thousand salesmen turned to me. You’d think I had stepped into the meat market, by accident! The salesmen were shamelessly ogling me and my brazen bare arms and legs like they’d never seen a woman before in their lives without the slightest regard for my husband standing on the other side of the vehicle. Now, I am 41 and a mother of two. I was never and am certainly now not exactly used to that kind of attention–even Rob was uncomfortable. He wanted me to just get back in the car, but they were not going to stop me and my quest for the very best and cheapest fruit. Their over zealous staring, snickering and side-jabbing at my expense soon waned in favor of excitement for our tourist dollars, which we were just about the lay down.

Vegetables of all varieties

Vegetables of all varieties

“You want grapes, lychee, guava? What you buy? You need wegetable?” shouted one salesmen who ended up trailing us around the small market like white on rice. “You need bringal? You need bean?” He hammered at us impatiently. We didn’t even have a moment to wonder what a “brinjal” was–it’s an eggplant apparently. This was one of those moments that I wished that I kept shopping lists. It was overwhelming, like Costco can be at home for me. I get so distracted by its sheer vastness that I often forget what I came to purchase. The fruits and vegetables also come in Costco-sized quantities, so I had to swiftly determine if we could if I actually needed an enormous box of carrots, potatoes, figs, pears, garlic, et al or could house them in my new, small kitchen. Yes, I determined I needed all that and more! There were no prices on anything, so you either had to just take it and not worry about the cost. Or, you could ask “how much?” and get that

Abu Dhabi Fruit market

Just one of a million fruits stands.

effusive, head-bobbing English for which many of the Indian Abu Dhabians are known. With unparalled enthusiasm, they move their heads up, down in circles and say a lot of words—only a few of which you may understand. You follow their heads in a circular motion hoping to garner some of his intent by repeating the motion. Then, they finish and look at you with big, wondering eyes like you are a little slow for not understanding what they just said with so much passion. We decided to take the former route and just hope we did not break the bank. We nearly bought one of everything in that shop, except a watermelon. I decided to turn to the specialist for that item. He tallied it all up by hand. It came to 90AED (approx. $30)—for a trunk load of some beautiful and exotic fruits and vegetables! It was nothing short of a shopping revelation.*  We got back into our car, sighed and agreed to do that a little differently next week.

Produce valet by wheelbarrow

Produce valet by wheelbarrow.

Abu Dhabi Fish Market

Abu Dhabi Fish Market

It was a bit late for the fish market and, the produce market had exhausted us. We decided to go anyway to, at the very least, check it out. We had heard that you have to get there very early for the morning’s freshest catch. It was nearly noon. I imagined it could also start to really stink there in 105 degree, humid weather. But that was not the case. We arrived, and it was clean as a whistle. Again, no women shop for fish either, but I was undeterred. After all, I had just been stripped naked by the eyes of a thousand salesmen at the produce stand. What could possibly be worse? Being stripped naked by the eyes of a ten thousand fishmongers perhaps? We walked in and, yes, these mongers had also probably not seen a woman before, but they seemed to care more about selling fish than ogling a rare, bare arm or they were just better multi-taskers than the fruit guys.


Rows and rows of tropical pretty fish!

The place was enormous, and it was hopping! There were rows and rows of fishmongers all dressed identically, but selling different fish. As you passed each one they desperately sought eye contact with you and begged you to take a moment to examine their freshly caught hammour, crab, shark or prawns. Each promised to give you “good price”—those might have been the only English words that each and every monger there knew. They struggled against their neighbors to shout louder at you. They searched your eyes for weakness and prayed that it would be their kingfish that you chose to purchase in the end after you had walked the market.

Mystery Sea Creature

Can anyone ID this flat, lobster-like creature?

I have never seen bigger shrimp in my life and so many of them—all different kinds with heads and feelers still firmly in place. There were rows of enormous baskets of blue and pink crabs. There were the most unusual sea creatures that must have been caught in the deepest recesses of the Pacific there waiting to be served up for dinner. There were many that I could not even identify! There were tables and tables of tuna and almost every other fish you can imagine and they were dirt-cheap! Once you commit to your choice of vendor, they bag it up for you and ring you up. We chose about the quietest monger we could find. This one barely even took notice of us as we examined his prawns. We liked him already.  We asked him for a kilo of his largest prawns. He scooped out a handful or three of them and tossed them into a plastic bag and then weighed them for us. It came to 40 AED (approx. $13). Next, you took your creatures to a shop at the end of the market where they clean them for you for pennies. There were also several shops in which they cook your purchase, as you like again for pennies on the dollar. How can you possibly beat those prices and that kind of service unless you caught the fish yourself?! 

Our Coconut milk man.

Our coconut milk man.

Before we went home, we quenched our thirst by sipping a fresh coconut juice for 5 AED ($1.50USD). The vendor shared a tip when purchasing your fresh coconut milk: Always ask for old coconut because the juice is sweeter. It was not that sweet, but it was refreshing. Anything tastes good drunk straight out a coconut, right?!

We left the market just brimming with excitement at our certain family members who would either love or hate places like those when they come to visit us in Abu Dhabi. I do not think that I have lived in places where they have had markets like those two that we had just visited. My senses have been flooded with images, sounds, tastes, smells and textures all just on your normal, average Saturday shopping day. I cannot wait to explore the other markets of Abu Dhabi, but now we need to go home and tonight cook a great meal in our new home and rest up from that excursion. Besseha بالصحة (to your health).

Coconut milk in a coconut at Abu Dhabi Fish Market

Enjoying a sip of fresh coconut milk after a long morning’s shop.

*We have since learned that there is large produce shop nearby which functions more like traditional market with prices and much fewer pesky salesmen. We will seek that one out next Saturday.

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