Sounds fishy, but it's true

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A funny thing happens to people who are consistently awake at 5 a.m.—they learn how to eat breakfast. The rest of us, tiredly groping for the snooze buttons of life, might swig coffee and aim some mediocre pastry toward our mouth holes when we have to get up early. But people who work in fish markets need a real meal. When you travel, you can get no better sense of a place and its cuisine than by following them to their food. Whether you just stepped off a flight in Colombo, Sri Lanka, or have been staring wide-eyed out a hotel room window in Mexico City for three hours waiting for the town to wake up, the key to early morning eating on the road is heading toward stalls of shimmering seafood. No matter where you are in the world, the best place to eat breakfast remains the same: the local fish market.

In Negombo (just outside Colombo), vendors crack open giant yellow coconuts, an instant cure for nearly everything from time-zone dizziness to hangovers, while you watch brightly-colored boats unload their wares in the lagoon. In Dubai, one of the few hours of the day when it’s almost pleasant to sit outside and sip hot tea is during the early morning fish market, best enjoyed with a plate full of squid curry, soaked up with shards of flaky paratha. By the third bite, all memories of the 14-hour plane ride that got you there will be long gone.

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Most fish markets aren’t made for tourists; they are places of business for the fishermen and vendors who sell there and the distributors who buy there. That means that the restaurants serve the exact kind of food that’s often hard to find as a visitor in town: soul-warming, everyday, and completely typical. Except for the world’s largest—Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market where people line up hours before dawn to get into the most-lauded sushi spots—there’s nary a crowd in sight. Few people are lining up the perfect Instagram, and even menus are rare.

At the world’s second-largest fish market, Mexico City’s La Nueva Viga, breakfast comes deep-fried. Empanadas, displayed with a bowl full of the shrimp mixture inside, perfectly crimped edges and bubbled exterior, sit next to golden crispy tacos lined up with packets of hot sauce poking up from the neat rows and limes conveniently stacked on top. Crab, tuna, and octopus, fresh from the rows of nearby stalls, get stuffed in dough and fried in oversized metal pans.

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You can find a similar empanada elsewhere, just like you could find a fish carcass soup somewhere besides Noryangjin market in Seoul, but it won’t be as good. It won’t be as good because you won’t have selected the fish from the stall just outside the restaurant. It won’t be as good because you won’t be the only person starting their day in a crowd of people ending theirs. The platter full of raw fish, ready to be made into lettuce wraps and smeared with brilliantly red spicy paste, just tastes better one table over from the fishermen eating their dinner and the hard-partiers winding down their night with abalone.

From the giant centers of national seafood commerce to the tiny beachside sales—barely more than a few fresh-caught fish laid on a tarp—fish markets around the world offer an unadulterated, essential version of local cuisine. Sometimes, though not always, there is fish involved. They’re open when your jet-lagged body has decided that it’s still noon in at home, even if it’s the middle of the night where you are, and they’re serving the exact thing that you likely traveled around the world for: a taste of something quintessentially local.