My Mother and The Fish Market of Dar es Salaam

One of my earliest memories of living in Tanzania is accompanying my Mother at the crack of dawn to the fish market every Sunday morning. While the world slept, she bundled me and my sister into the car, our eyelids still heavy with sleep. We drove the short five minute journey in silence, savouring the tranquillity before the storm.

Any hint of tiredness quickly vanished when we reached the Dar es Salaam fish market. As we opened the car door, our senses were awakened with a sharp bang. The cries of sea gulls competed with the drone of the fishermen, the scent of fresh fish competed with the salty sea air, the bustle of people weaving through the market competed with the enthusiasm of the fishermen as they hollered and tried to lure you to their stalls.

And what a feast for the eyes those stalls were. Aged boats, with their faded paint, gently rocked in the distance as fishermen were untangling their nets on one side whilst others were unloading fresh red snapper and king fish into ice boxes. The fishermen worked systematically in teams of three – the first would lure a potential customer to his stall, the second would show off the catch of the day and haggle a price. And the last would be sitting on the floor with an array of sharp knives surrounding him. Each knife had a specific purpose – one for scraping the scales, one for removing the skins, one for cutting through the fish.

My Mother waded her way through the crowd to one particular seller. She was a regular at this stall every Sunday. For her the process of buying fish was a ritual. The same ritual was to be followed week in, week out. She would ignore all the fish that lay on the wooden table, swimming in ice, and asked the fisherman for the ‘real’ and unseen treasure, the one the man hid under the table, reserved for special customers – customers who knew how to distinguish really fresh fish.

Like every week, she would give us a running commentary of how to identify a fresh fish, one that is still in its prime. ‘Make sure the eye looks clear, not grey.’ She would then look at the gills. If they were anything but a bright and shiny red, she would hand the fish straight back to the fishermen and ask for another. ‘It’s an art you must learn – choose one whose body looks shiny and metallic and make sure it doesn’t smell fishy. It should smell fresh like the salty sea air.’

That was the easy part. It was the price haggling that both my sister and I dreaded most. The fisherman would start off with an extortionate price and my Mother wasn’t too shy to tell him off and counter it with a ridiculously low offer. This would go on for a few minutes with my Mother threatening to walk off without buying anything and never returning. Eventually, a mutual price was agreed and the fish was cleaned. I’m afraid we never watched that part as it was rather gruesome for a mere 9 year old.

And so that was how our Sunday was spent. Of course, this was always followed by a lunch of fresh fish. Sometimes we would have a spicy fish biryani, other times it was pan fried in a coconut curry. Today I’m going to share with you one of her simplest recipes – fish seasoned with sea salt, chilli flakes and lime juice, then grilled to perfection, crispy on the outside but moist and juicy on the inside. My mother served this with a bowl of chips straight from the stove or roasted potatoes from the oven. Simple and spring like, exactly how fish should be eaten.

Grilled Red Snapper with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

Ingredients for 2 people

1 medium red snapper

2 tbsps olive oil

Sea salt and red chilli flakes to taste

juice of 1 lime

a big bunch cherry tomatoes

2 tbsps balsamic vinegar


Preheat the oven grill to 200 degrees C. Sprinkle both sides of the fish with olive oil, lime juice, salt and red chilli flakes. Marinate the cherry tomatoes in balsamic vinegar and place on the same tray as the fish. Grill for 10 – 15 minutes on each side. The cherry tomatoes will be done earlier so remove them when they appear tender.

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