My eyes are still bleary from the long flight, but that’s not the reason I can’t quite follow the action going on at the Sydney Fish Market.
“I shuck about 4000 oysters a day,” says Michael from Christie’s Seafood, his hands a blur as his sharp knife prises open the unwilling shells of mollusc after mollusc and lays them carefully on platters. “No, I don’t get bored... there are too many tourists around. I get to meet people from all over the world!”
The pile of Pacific Oysters that Michael is steadily shucking his way through are just one of about 100 species of seafood that are traded daily at the fascinating Sydney Fish Market.
The largest fish market in the southern hemisphere, and second in the world after Tokyo’s Tsukiji market, Sydney Fish Market has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Australian capital, and a regular stop for seafood-loving visitors.
Australia's only working fishermen's market, the highlight of the market is the early-morning auctions. This is where the real business of seafood happens, with dozens of registered buyers bidding for the 1000 crates and 50 tonnes of seafood that move through the market each day.
Produce from the local fishing fleet, as well as from across Australia and New Zealand, starts arriving from 3pm the previous day until just an hour or two before the auction begins at 5.30am. A sea of crates, overflowing with ice and fish, spread across the vast auction floor ready to be inspected, auctioned and shipped off to restaurants and shops across the capital.
A Dutch-auction system sees the price per crate falling with each minute that goes by, and buyers have to be quick on the button to get the produce they want at the lowest possible price. Except for the ocean of seafood the amphitheatre of bidders, each with a numbered keypad for bidding, looks a little like a bingo hall at a seniors club!
Separate auctions take place in the Crustacean section, where large tanks bubble with the spiny legs of crayfish, crabs and lobsters. Here a ‘traditional’ auction sends the prized catch home with the highest bidder.
At the far end of the auction floor, a scrupulously clean cement slab is home to the rather grandly titled ‘Sashimi Pavilion’. It’s here that enormous Yellow-fin, Blue-fin and Big Eye tuna are laid out for inspection and auction, before being dispatched to the city’s sushi bars to be transformed into slabs of sashimi.
The serious business of seafood
The morning auction is all about the serious business of seafood, and curious tourists are only permitted on the floor twice a week on organised official tours.
The tours take place Mondays and Thursdays throughout the year, with a maximum of 20 people per tour... so book early! Speaking of early, you’ll need to be up with the sun to make the auction.
Tours leave at 6.50am sharp to catch the last 45 minutes of auction as well as explore the seafood laid out on the auction floor. Water and ice have right of way here though, so remember to wear closed shoes.
Many visitors on a whistle-stop tour to Sydney miss the early-morning auction tour, but the market is still well worth a visit. A large retail area is home to the city's seven top seafood retailers and offers a smorgasbord of seafood, much of it purchased off the auction floor that morning. You can also buy a wide variety of fresh seafood to take home, or enjoy a great meal on the wharf overlooking the local fishing fleet.
Christie’s, where Michael is probably still shucking oysters as you read this, is a great option if you’ve got some cash to spend on something fishy. Enormous crabs and frisbee-sized abalone seem to be the speciality here. No surprise then to find an abundance of Chinese tourists handing over handfuls of dollars!
Australia’s most famous fish-shop?
Fisherman’s Wharf is a more upmarket option, with a fantastic ‘yum cha’ seafood lunch offered everyday. The Cantonese ‘yum cha’ is a great way to taste a range of dishes, with a trolley of small tasting plates trundling through the restaurant allowing you to help yourself as long as your stomach can take it!
At the entrance to the market, Doyle’s is perhaps Australia’s most famous fish-shop. This small family-owned restaurant chain has been serving up fine fishy fare for over five generations, and there are now three similarly laid-back bistros across the city.
If you fancy trying your hand at a fry-up, the Fish Market is also home to an on-site cookery school, where guest chefs teach you the ins and outs of creating a perfect seafood feast. Unsurprisingly, in a country where throwing a few prawns on the ‘barbie is a national sport, the fish barbecue course is one of the most popular!
Whether you choose to ‘DIY’, or let the experts do it for you, there’s a world of seafood to be discovered at this unusual Sydney attraction. Choose your fish (or crab, lobster or prawns!) decide how you’d like it done, throw in a platter of oysters for good measure and grab a seat at the tables outside overlooking the wharf. Forget the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House and the glamorous beaches. The historic Fish Market is the best place to get a taste of the real Sydney.