Experience 39: Eat Sydney’s freshest fish and chips

by Christa Larwood
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The real action at the Sydney Fish Market begins before dawn as fishermen arrive with their catches, dropping anchor beside the hulking blue warehouse on the edge of a Sydney Harbour tributary. Soon after, the place erupts into all the drama of a high-stakes auction, with the city’s fishmongers scrambling to outbid each other for the best and freshest seafood. By the time the first customers arrive at 7am, the chaos has subsided and the results of the auction can be seen piled high under glass in the largest fish market in the Southern Hemisphere.

The sleek forms of Tasmanian salmon and blue-eyed trevalla seem to jostle for space with the striped, fat-bellied bonita fish and the romantically named Venus tuskfish, while thousands of beady-eyed prawns and black mussels as big as a man’s fist are stacked in neat piles alongside. Along one wall in a live tank, sea creatures yet to meet their fate cast a baleful eye at their potential diners. Horny-backed lobsters rummage in an ever-rotating pile alongside king crabs so enormous it seems they could at any moment take a shopper hostage and make their escape.

One man with an eye on every fish, crab and mollusc in the market is master fishmonger Tony from Nicholls Seafood. "This is the best seafood in the world, there’s no doubt about it," he said with an infectious enthusiasm. "And it’s such an exciting place to be. Every day is different because you don’t know what is going to come through the door."

Seafood, Tony said, is much more than just something to include in the shopping basket here. "It’s a huge part of the Sydney lifestyle, on all occasions – even Christmas. Who wants to sit down to a big roast dinner in the hot weather when you can have some lovely prawns on a barbeque? All you just have to look at the city’s location – surrounded by water – and our obsession with seafood is a no-brainer."

While the shimmering rows of beautiful, wide-eyed or fierce-looking fish were fascinating, as lunchtime approached, our attention was ineluctably drawn to the back of the market where half a dozen white-coated cooks were furiously working. Here, it’s customary to buy the most succulent fillet of fish you can find, and to have it fried up on the spot into the freshest fish and chips in the city.

We decided on delicate pieces of snapper – the ultimate choice for all true Sydneysiders, according to Tony – and watched on tiptoes as it was dipped in batter and slowly turned golden in a roiling, bubbling fryer.

We emerged into the sunshine with matching plates: perfect fried fish with heaps of fresh, crisp-edged chips, green salad and thick wedges of lemon. It was a perfect setting: overlooking part of the city’s famous harbour, filled with bobbing boats under a blue sky, all accompanied by the squawking of gulls. The fish was so fresh it almost fell apart at the hint of a fork approaching, and the taste – well, if this isn’t the most delicious fish and chips in the world, I’d say it’s pretty darn close.

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