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Market Watch: Sea Creatures

What should I eat for dinner?

Long before there were grocery stores like Giant Foods or Costco, and before Seamless Web or OpenTable, many people answered the age-old question of “dinner” at the local market. In towns and cities around the world, local fishermen, bakers, butchers and farmers gathered for a few hours in the morning or evening to sell their yield. And today, food artisans still do.

Wherever I travel, I seek out the local food market to find out what people eat. Open-air markets are a sensorial experience: pink flesh of newly-harvested fruits, roasty-toasty smells of freshly-baked bread, tangy bites of local cheese. They’re also a regional learning experience: What creatures are harvested from the waters of the Mediterranean or the Mekong? What breed of cow or sheep or goat thrives on Italy’s forbidding hills? What vegetables grow near humid Kong Kong or in dry Asturias? You can learn a lot about culinary culture by just wandering through these open-air stalls.

One corner of every local market that fascinates me is the fish section. What have local fisherman pulled from the river or the sea? The answer varies by region, and it’s always a surprise.

Words can’t describe these glistening, quivering water creatures, but photographs can. I’ve compiled some of my favorite memories of sea-born surprises from around the globe: Feast your eyes, and head to the local market the next time you find yourself in a new city.

Borough Market, London, UK

Tourists and locals alike oggled at the size of this fish, sheared in half to show off the gorgeous ribbons of its white flesh. Talk about catch of the day!

Vucciria Market, Palermo, Sicily

 With loads of local marble at their disposal, it’s no surprise that fisherman at Palermo’s fish market in Sicily use the cool, smooth stone to present a prize octopus for sale.

Phnom Penh Market, Cambodia

In the midst of zooming tuk-tuks and local shoppers, a woman sat in the street, unhurriedly peeling frog legs harvested from the nearby Mekong River. 

Vucciria Market, Palermo, Sicily

Fried calamari might be one of the most common items on U.S. menus, but the deep-fried rings are a far cry from the beauty of a freshly-harvested squid. And to cook them at home, with cracked pepper and olive oil and a squirt of lemon, does the Mediterranean mollusk justice.

Central Market, Hong Kong

These giant oysters were freshly shucked and bathed in water to stay fresh: ready for local Hong Kong kitchens, not a dash of Tabasco or spoonful of mignonette sauce.

Phnom Penh Market, Cambodia

An enterprising local fisherman used fresh taro leaves to present his catch, a mix of local river fish and an eel.

Vucciria Market, Palermo, Sicily

The Sicilian fisherman I spoke to insisted I eat a handful of the silver minnows, pictured on the left. He brought out the larger fish to illustrate a point: had these small fry grown up, they’d look like the fish on the left. Both were tasty.

Vucciria Market, Palermo, Sicily

I had an Ernest Hemingway moment while gazing at this beautiful Swordfish caught off the coast of Palermo, Sicily’s capital city. The metal hook with which it was caught still rested in its mouth: the small bite that brought down a colossal fish.

These markets blossom with life, despite the fact that everything there is destined for a boiling pot, a hot oven, a glowing grill, a clay tagine or even an open fire. And they support human life in each corner of the world, as we grow and thrive on local fare.