The brutal test of my market worthiness. Shrewd grannies and haggling aunties, judge me well.

Sometimes being a foodie can be really painful. You (and by ‘you’ in the all the following statements, I obviously mean ‘I’) get into a fix when someone else decides to pick the dinner place – have they researched the place? what’s it known for? will this be a wasted opportunity to have tried some undiscovered gem out there? You can’t look at an interesting menu without psycho-analyzing it for a good fifteen minutes before deciding what to order…and then cross-checking with the server to see what she recommends, and whether her facial expressions in reaction to your order confirm whether your dish is The Best One. You won’t be content with your neighborhood grocery store – you need better, fresher, more differentiated. And when you find a local market that trumps that neighborhood store, you won’t be content with picking your produce during the day, or in the evening…you’ve got to be one of the first there at seven thirty in the morning. When everything is at its freshest, greenest, most plumpest peak.

People think life as a foodie is all chocolate and cheese. But honestly sometimes, life as a foodie is – in a totally self-inflicted way– just plain brutal.

And brutal was exactly what that first hour of waking up at 5.30am last Friday morning to be at the local fish and veggies market felt like. Worse cause even my folks, typically super early risers, were tucked away and enjoying those delicious early weekend morning moments (*alarm alarm!* Ack! I need to wake up, I’m late! Oh wait, it’s a Friday. TGIF. Aaaaah. *Click – snooze*). Doubly worse, because I wanted mom – a veteran of the local UAE markets – to accompany our group of FiA foodies who’d masochistically signed up for this early morning market visit. The last time I’d been with her to a local market was back in high school, when we’d make weekly trips to the Karama market…this was my first visit after moving back home from the U.S. My first visit to the market in Dubai as a grown-up. As the fledgling bumped off the nest, left all alone to haggle for her own fish. Brutal.But what was most brutal of all was not the waking up part, or being abandoned by mom to fend for myself, or even the sadistic display of dinner with piles of dead fish and prawns and butchered shark chunks (I take that back. Seriously, I love fish…but that was actually pretty brutal even for me)…what was most brutal was knowing that I’d come home with my grocery bags to face a mom who’s in her own time, made Karama fishmongers shiver into submission as she dismissingly tossed aside the stale hammour for the fresher picks. The foodie in me wanted nothing more than to excel by her standards.

So rather than talk about the market, I’m going to be really egoistic and just use this post to rate myself on the M.S.M.S. – the Mommy Scale of Market Saaviness Saavyness saavyiness Savviness (oh go away squiggly, I know this is a word!) Luckily, my more modest compadres who’d been at the market that day  – Sally, Rajani and Sarah – have all described the market sights, smells, and sounds so eloquently in their blogs that I’ll revert to my usual lazy self and beg you to click through to their posts if you fancy a less egocentric assessment of the local Shindagha market.

Now, before I start the rating, here are the 3 simple rules of the M.S.M.S.

This being my first visit to the Shindagha market, that too without mom, my modest goal is to break even. If I can manage to get a positive score, and especially anything over 5, I’ll know that I’ve got the raw material in me to make fishmongers shudder in fear at my arrival someday. And if I hit the negative zone, then…well…I’ll be destined to confine myself to the frigid bag of supermarket peas and all their mass market equivalents…FOREVA’. [Ominous background twang.]

Without further ado, let the ratings begin.

+1 point for actually waking up at 5.30, showering, grabbing breakfast, and stepping foot into the market at 7.30, right on plan.

-1 point for getting up 15 minutes early so that I could grab a quick breakfast before heading to the market. When I read Sarah’s post on the market, it dawned on me that I could get free tea and some of the freshest fruit at the market (ooh. right.) Could have just slept in for those extra fifteen. Lame.

-2 points for behaving like a total tourist at first, and then trying to pretend to be a resident market expert half an hour later.

As soon as we stepped in, all the foodies and myself started snapping away with our schmanzy DSLR’s like the richest tourists of all time. Ever tried bargaining for bananas with a Canon DSLR slung around your neck? I may as well have held a placard saying, Come Fleece Me.
The correct strategy would have been to go around purchasing, sans cameras, first. And then whipped out the cameras from the car after we’d bought everything for a 30 minute photo session across the entire market.

+0.5 of a point for prodding the fish and prawns with my bare hands. And then touching my camera with the same hands after. I felt almost National Geographicesque.

-2 points for suspecting the Bangladeshi wheel barrow brothers who were stalking us right from the car park for foul play.

Turns out that it’s a market norm to get a barrow boy to wheel your purchases around. At first, I felt super proud and resourceful that I’d bought along a knapsack as well as a fashionably recyclable Abu Dhabi organics grocery bag to stuff my groceries in. Kilos of produce later, my biceps revolted in pain. Luckily, my fellow foodies had been less cynical and had already delegated their produce hauling to the barrow brothers…soon enough, I caved in and begged the barrow boys to please wheel my groceries for me too?

+1 point for handsomely tipping the barrow boys for their hard work

-2.5 points for a tip that was a little too handsome. Mommy nearly disowned me when she heard what I’d paid them. But mom, it included their going to get the prawns deveined and the fish filleted and cleaned! No…I didn’t really ask them for their rates upfront. Nope, didn’t ask the price of cleaning and deveining separately. Yes, just paid them an all-inclusive tip and made a few assumptions about the cost of fish cleaning. Yes, I realize now that the whole affair sounds ridiculous.
I’m so mortified now by my lack of rate research, questioning and total naivety, I can’t bring myself to disclose what amount I gave them.

+2 points for stall-hopping to find Omani prawns that were ten dirhams cheaper/kilogram than the first stall we went to. The first stall we checked prawns out at was one that our barrow brothers eagerly pulled us to…my guess is that they had a commission sharing deal with the vendor, but we didn’t fall for it and hopped elsewhere for the bargain.

+1 point for getting another five dirhams knocked of the already lower price / kilogram because I was buying four kilos worth. Mommy would be SO proud of me right about now.

+1 point for creating the perception being a fish market veteran by confidently checking the gills of the hammour for freshness as though I do it every morning at work. Fish monger, no mess with me.

-1 point for probably destroying that perception while buying pomfret from the same stall. In my still sleepy stupor, I stupidly lifted the fin thinking it was the gill flap to check the freshness, and on seeing nothing but plain skin under the fin (as it should be), I assumed that the gill test doesn’t apply to dead pomfret. The guy threw the stalest pomfret into my basket that morning.
…and another -0.5 of a point for buying four palm-sized pomfret as per mommy’s instructions, but failing to check whose palm sizes she was talking about – her’s or mine? (Turns out, it was neither. Palm probably meant the more hefty and wide fish monger palms. Needless to say, I came home with grossly undersized pomfret.)

Lack of sleep can be really destructive in a place like the Shindagha market, where you need to really be on at all times. Especially if, as is often true in my case, you’re already a space cadet to begin with.

+2.5 points for buying the most sweetest, juiciest oranges and grapes that the family has tasted in a long time. And for actually getting them at a seemingly appropriate rate.

-1 point for bargaining unsuccessfully for a kilo of onions and making the vendor so mad at me that he’d have started pelting me with them if I didn’t walk away. On hearing my plight, Mom sagely declared: No one usually bargains for onions, they have a standard rate.

But mom, the guy in the stall next to him gave me a dirham off from the standard rate for a kilo of onions! So I’ve managed the impossible! +3 points?
Oh, it was because he shoved the mushiest, tiniest onions in the bag? No, I didn’t individually check them. The ones on the top of the basket looked fresh. Right…I got duped. +3 points
-1 point
for being penny wise, pound foolish.

+2 points for successfully using the ‘this is all the change I’ve got in my wallet – I can’t pay you a fil more…’ tactic and getting away with my bluff with two fruit vendors

-1 point when the pomfret man called my bluff and promptly extracted one pomfret from my bag “since I could only afford the price of four with what was left in my wallet.” Hmph. Good riddance to stale fish.

+1 point for trying to leverage my Urdu skills to the max as I bargained with the vendors. Sign of a true insider.

-2 points when it dawned on me that I actually can’t say or understand numbers in Urdu. Pretty self-defeating if you want to the guy to go down from five dirhams to two and a half. My botched up Anglo-Urdu vocab probably provided the vendors comic relief in those wee hours of the morning. And let them get away with the 200% higher prices they likely stick out there on spotting an ignorant face.

-3 points for leaving the market to see a one hundred and fifty dirham parking ticket plastered to my windshield. Wha…? Um, hello, it’s a FRIDAY?!

Supposedly, the barrow brothers had announced this fact right when we’d first met them in the parking lot. And space cadet me just hadn’t heard it.
Consolation, mom and dad both agreed the paid parking on Friday was totally unfair and counter-intuitive, and that they’d never have known this either. So maybe slashing off 3 whole points is a bit harsh…let’s add +1 back.


The grand total on The Mommy Scale of Market Savviness comes to…

+1-1-2+0.5-2+1-2.5+2+1+1-1-0.5+2.5-1 +3 -1+2-1+1-2-3+1 =

*drumroll please*


Negative Four?

No. This is ridiculous, it cannot be right…or can it?…it’s true. This is a new low on the M.S.M.S. scale. After generations of street-smart grannies and haggling aunties, I, the self-professed foodie, have hit the dreaded, no-self-respecting-woman’s minus zone.  [droopy head, tear in eye, gradually retreats away]

Folks, put away the pom poms and party hooters.  Some stories just don’t have happy endings.

Except that, at least mine has plump Omani prawns and a basketful of juicy oranges at the end of it.

Shindagha Fish & Vegetable Market

Open 7 days a week (not sure about the exact start and close times – we were there from 7.30am to 9.30 on a Friday)
Directions: We just drove up to the Hyatt Regency, and the valet directed us from there.  There are brown street signs pointing to the market, literally a minute away from the Hyatt.

Author: InaFryingPan

With a family legacy of ingenious cooks, a nutritionist and chef-extraordinaire mother, and a father who introduced me to steak and caviar when I could barely reach the table, I had no choice but to acquire a keen awareness of food during my childhood years in Dubai. But it was only after I found myself on a college campus in Philadelphia – far away from home, too cheap as a student to spend on anything other than pizza, and with dorm rooms that had little rat-holes of kitchens if they even had them at all – when I developed a heightened appreciation of food. An appreciation of food that I once ate every night at the dinner table in Dubai, but that was now an entire ocean away. I lusted for the culinary treasures that lay outside the stale walls of my college dining hall, hijacked friends’ kitchens to try my hand at something, anything , remotely edible, and greedily raided different websites in search of highly-rated restaurants. With my move to New York to work for a consulting firm that secretly harbored self-professed foodies, my appreciation transformed into a passion, an addicition. I felt like everyone around me in New York was talking about food: where to get the best cupcakes, pizza slices, banh mi, kati rolls, pho, fried chicken, and every other food item out there that is just a plain old dish in some part of the world, but that’s become hyped to unforeseen proportions in New York. What fuelled my addiction over time was travel to different cities, both for work and play, which gave me unfettered access to the culinary havens of not only New York, but also of DC, Virginia, Chicago, Houston, Vegas, Austin, Seattle and even a little city called Bentonville (Arkansas!). After 9 years away from home, I’ve finally taken the leap to come back to Dubai – with not just an awareness, but genuine appreciation and passionate addiction for what I’d taken for granted as a child. Mom, I’m back to reclaim my seat at your dinner table, and to rediscover this city with its ever-expanding menu of international flavors.

11 thoughts on “The brutal test of my market worthiness. Shrewd grannies and haggling aunties, judge me well.

  1. Sally says:

    Arva, your photos are absolutely superb. I’m glad you took the trouble to find out the name of Hafiz – I was quite ashamed that I didn’t.

  2. Saleem says:

    Next time you go, take mom and you will score more points and may also save on the parking ticket.

  3. Rajani says:

    please add a +9 from me for such a funny post. i am wondering what made me wary of the wheelbarrow guys?? is it like a south asian thing of suspecting everything? but that guy did make a haul!!!! regarding your pics- if you dont mind my two bits – good frames, but you’ve gone just a teeny tiny bit overboard with the contrasts. it could be down 1 notch. ofcourse thats just my opinion, pls edit out this comment if you hate it!

  4. InaFryingPan says:

    @Sally – thanks as always for the positive words! guess what, I even have Hafiz’s cell number in case we’d like to contact him for next time ;)

    @Dad – you bet, I have already decided that I’m not going without her!

    @Rajani – I think everyone was suspicious, you can’t but not be – but eventually we all caved in coz it was too much to lug everything around! and thanks so much for the feedback – you’re absolutely spot on that I was playing with contrasts, my first time ever using that, so I definitely went a little beserk with the tool!

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      @Rajani – wait, you just gave me a +9!! (folks, I know this is off the scale but I’m sure that the judges would be pretty flexible on this) – that makes my final score a POSITIVE FIVE! That officially puts me on the brink of the fishmonger-shudders-in-fear-of-my-awesomeness zone, I have done it, this story does have a happy ending after all! Rajani, what can I say, you totally rock.

  5. Sarah says:

    Very cool perspective. Your ma is smart, think I need some lessons! Great pics and +1 for knowing Wheels’s real name

  6. @chiragnd says:

    I was going to give you a +10 as well for the funny post. I’m curious now – how long does it take you to write these, I mean, if I had to pull something this funny, I would write it, then edit it, and edit somemore, and I would never put posts up. No, that has *nothing* to do with my lack of food posts recently. NOTHING.

    Seriously funny. I still say the Farmer’s market was your funniest yet though, but this is darned good!

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      @Chirag – does ’I was going to give you a +10’ mean that I get it, or not? I’m going to interpret liberally and assume yes, I get a 10! That takes me me to +15…I could be close to breaking a world record here!!

      And thanks for the super complimentary words…I’m not actually sure how long it takes now that you ask. I mean, the actual writing up in front of my computer barely takes any time, but that’s cause I’m already thinking about what I want to say as I potter around at random moments through the day before I sit down to write. But thank you for the high praise, I’m on cloud nine!

      @Anja – thanks! we really missed you though….but that gives us incentive to do this again a second time with you there!

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