Upon visiting Abu Dhabi, there are certain things one feels obliged to do. You’ll comment on the furnace-like heat. You’ll take a stroll down Hamdan street and haggle over a hooky handbag. Then, at some point, chances are you’ll sit down for a plateful of lesser-spotted grouper fish – known locally as hammour.
With its meaty, cod-like texture and a subtle flavour that acts as the perfect vessel for all manner of herbs and spices, the hammour’s versatility and prominence in Gulf waters have made it a staple on just about every menu we’ve ever encountered. You’ll find it in tikka masalas, stir fries, kebabs, pastas, salads – we’ve even heard rumours of a hammour pizza.
Put simply, spending time in Abu Dhabi and not eating hammour would be like taking a trip to London and neglecting to strike an idiotic pose in a red phone box.
Trouble is, all those authentic Arabian fish suppers have left the nation’s waters dangerously understocked, with recent estimates suggesting hammour is currently being fished at seven times the sustainable rate. Levels are dwindling, and unless the capital changes its eating habits and curbs habitat-disrupting coastal development its favourite fish could be in big trouble.
Nessrine Alzahlawi, head of the Choose Wisely campaign, run by the Emirates Wildlife Society in association with World Wide Fund for Nature, believes raising public awareness is the key to extending the hammour’s lifespan.
‘The focus should be on labelling,’ says Nessrine, ‘giving the information to people and indicating which fish is currently in trouble, and explaining that there are sustainable alternatives, which are also local and fresh. Even the local supply is not enough, we’re actually importing a lot of hammour from Oman and other gulf countries.’
Sadly, relying purely on the conscience of the city’s gastro crowd isn’t an option, even for the most naïve conservationist. Ultimately, the greatest power to make a difference lies with those putting the food on our plates: the hotels and their restaurants.
They’ve understandably been sluggish to react – along with dates, hammour has for decades been the lynchpin of Abu Dhabi’s culinary heritage and altering menus could work in favour of the competition, of which there’s plenty.
Le Royal Meridien was the first to take the risk, with executive chef Olivier Loreaux recently adding sustainable alternatives to the menus of Opera, Amalfi, Al Fanar and, as of this month, sushi restaurant Soba. Hammour may still feature on some of Le Royal Meridien’s a la carte menus, but the inclusion of clearly marked responsible alternatives such as souli and two-bar sea bream, along with the plan to roll out the menu revisions to the Starwood group’s five other hotels in the city, is definitely a step in the right direction.
Of course, there’s another worry. Somewhat paradoxically, when something becomes rare, it also becomes more desirable, especially in a city with a soft spot for the status symbol attached to morally-dubious delicacies. It’s a conundrum that Nessrine and EWS are all too aware of. ‘There are endangered species being traded the world over on the black market,’ she says. ‘And our hope is that with education – as well as a necessary amount of monitoring and regulation – this desire for rare animals will be discouraged and shamed.’ We’re not facing the prospect of shady fish exchanges in the back alleys of Khalidiya just yet, but with hammour numbers down 80 per cent since 1978, now’s the time to take action.
So, how can you help? Voting with your stomach is the best course of action for now.
The Choose Wisely campaign’s website features a printable, colour-coded guide to the status of the fish you’re likely to be offered when you next dine out. The hope is that, in time, shunning the guys in the red column will increase demand for fish such as the yanam (which is the most similar in texture to hammour), and will force restaurants to fall in line. There’s also the chance to sign EWS’s open letter to the city’s restaurants, plus information on volunteering.
So, next time you have folks over to visit, by all means take them camel spotting and enjoy a shisha on the Corniche. But when dinner time rolls around, do the hammour a favour and keep your eyes peeled for a sustainable alternative. Or, of course, there’s always the chicken.
Moved to tears? Just a bit hungry? Head to choosewisely.ae to browse recipes for responsibly sourced fish dishes, or to upload the results of your own tasty experiments.
Hammour isn’t the only at-risk seafood being served up in the city. Steer clear of these scaly fellows, too:
Shaari, AKA ‘spangled emperor’
Fersh, AKA ‘painted sweetlips’
Zuraidi, AKA ‘golden trevally’
Kanaad, AKA ‘kingfish’
Yemah, AKA ‘snub-nose emperor’
Qabit, AKA ‘godlined sea bream’