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Think Jeddah, think fish

A seller in Jeddah's fish market, where freshly caught fish are sold at 100 stalls from 5am every day Creative Commons/Public Domain Mark 1.0
A seller in Jeddah's fish market, where freshly caught fish are sold at 100 stalls from 5am every day
  • Red Sea port built on fishing industry
  • Conditions perfect for sea life
  • Town famous for fish restaurants

For generations of pilgrims travelling to Mecca and Medina, the thriving port city of Jeddah on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast is known as the gateway to the two Holy Mosques. 

With protein and nutrition comes strength and in the harsh conditions of Arabia it’s the fittest and strongest who thrive.

No wonder then that Jeddah, home to princes and kings, sharifs and sheikhs, traders, pilgrims and travellers, has been built in no small part thanks to the prowess and dedication of its fishermen.

Warm temperatures and a shallow sea shelf mean high levels of nutrient-laden sediment. From this emerge the phytoplankton and zooplankton that feed the tasty fish that the people of Jeddah and pilgrims love.  

There’s no shortage of fancy places to eat fish in the city. Sushi joints can be found across Jeddah, including upmarket Roka, an outpost of the restaurant in Mayfair, London, as well as many other outstanding places including Fuji on the Prince Sultan Road and Wakame Lounge on King Abdulaziz Road.  

But for Hejazi-style dining the place to go is Twina, a fine Jeddah institution. This seafood restaurant, founded by fish supremo Bakur Toonsi, is packed after prayers on Friday with families enjoying a big lunch.  

You choose your catch from huge ice counters, always fresh, and 20 minutes later you’re gorging on fried najel, a coral grouper, local lobster, giant prawns and crab. Twina’s Obhur branch, next to several beach clubs, is worth the trip out of town.  

For an even more adventurous experience, Ba’eshan, in the historic old town of Al Balad, has a small upstairs room where diners sit on the floor and eat Sayadieh, a selection of the day’s catch, spiced and fried, and served on a mountain of rice, with a choice of unctuous gravies.

But the real fun is to be had down at the Central Fish Market. Jeddah’s fishermen operate inshore and offshore, often venturing out for four or five days in search of well-known shoals and fish laden reefs. 

The Fish Market sits in a cacophonous hall with over 100 counters, selling everything the Red Sea can offer – red spotted najel (a kind of grouper), turquoise parrotfish, tuna, sardines, Sultan Ibrahim (bream), prawns, crab and lobster.  

The market also offers catches from further afield, including Jizan, Yemen and even Norwegian salmon. Many of the fishermen are Egyptian and will sell you live freshwater Tilapia, farmed locally and beloved of Cairenes everywhere.

The fish market is open from 5am every day. Prices vary according to season, demand and time of day. A kilo of najel will set you back between 100 riyals ($26) and 140 riyals. It is delicious. 

Expect to pay more at the start of the day when you are up against the chefs and restaurateurs buying the good stuff. A black shelled local “Baladi” lobster will set you back 50 riyals for a kilo, a big colourful Yemen lobster 85 riyals for a kilo. 

There is an entire section of the market where nimble-fingered helpers will gut, shell, de-bone and fillet your haul for less than 5 riyals a kilo. Then drop by the onsite cafeteria and they will fry your prawns or grill your lunch for 15 riyals a kilo.

Saudi Arabia produced over 100,000 tonnes of fish in 2022, a four-fold increase in less than 10 years. With plans to develop fishing and aquaculture this is a growth industry that draws on skills and a fishing heritage stretching back countless generations. The Bride of the Red Sea is indeed worthy of her name.

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