For most Sydneysiders, a trip to the Sydney Fish Market (SFM) has long been part of the Christmas holiday tradition, as we prepare platters for Christmas day. But as the New Year rolls in, it’s worth taking a closer look at this Sydney icon.

Established at its current Blackwattle Bay location in 1966 after several shifts in the licensing of fish agents in New South Wales, SFM wasn’t always the efficient and technical gem that it has become. Sure, it still gets going in the wee small hours while most of us are safely tucked up in bed, but gone are the labour intensive voice auctions. One of the biggest changes (and one that still draws a crowd) was the introduction of the Dutch auction system in 1989, modelled on the auction system for tulips used for over 130 years in Holland. Taking place every weekday, the price of the days catch is set slightly above the expected price and then allowed to drop until a buyer stops the auction. It’s a breathtaking and efficient auction system that has made SFM one of the best in the world.

Today, SFM is the largest fish market in the Southern Hemisphere, and typically the warmer months are perfect for seafood platters and prawns on the BBQ, but trade is continuous throughout the year. So, just why do we love it so much?

“Fishing is Australia’s number one hobby sporting activity,” says Peter Polous, owner of Peter’s Fish Market. “And as a result Australians have an affinity with fish and seafood. The market just happens to be that point where professionals and everyday Aussies meet. It’s one of these points where the dream becomes a reality,” says the Market veteran, who has been frequenting the Market since he was six and working in the family business for around 30 years.

“It’s about appreciating the fact that some poor bugger went out on a boat at a God awful hour for you and caught that beautiful, fresh fish,” he laughs.

But the market isn’t just about fish-to-go. There’s an abundance of other things to do besides stock up on fillets to take home with you. Dining has long been a key part of the action, from fish and chips on the wharf (try a seat at Doyle’s or a mixed box from The Fish Market Cafe), to Yum-Cha upstairs at Fisherman’s Wharf Seafood Restaurant (complete with live tanks).

Or you could book into a class at the Sydney Seafood School, where you can learn how to cook seafood to perfection and to deal with and appreciate the more unusual fish species.

But for a real eye opener of what the market is all about, get behind the scenes. “If you’ve ever wondered how seafood gets from the ocean to the plate, you should take a behind the scenes tour of our wholesale fish auction,” says Marketing Manager Pete Jeans.

“It’s the largest wholesale fish auction in the Southern Hemisphere and the second largest in the world in terms of variety.”

Certainly there’s nothing quite as invigorating as starting the day on the auction floor as the catch comes in crates with shovelfuls of ice. “You can see everything from sashimi tuna or live mud crab to the Aussie favourite, prawns, as well as over 100 species of whole fish,” he says, noting that it might start early (think 6:40am), but that it is one of the best ways to really enjoy the market.

With the market shifting 14,500 tonnes of seafood annually, bringing variety, quality and education to Sydneysiders, there’s even information on sustainable fishing and education.

And for a final tip on how to get the best out of the Market next time you’re there: “Get to know the fishmongers and don’t be afraid to ask questions,” enthuses Polous. “They know what’s good and how do I deal with it. People often stick to the same old choices, but if you get to know the staff, these people really know what to do with everything. The relationship with your fishmonger is important. They won’t steer you wrong; they’ll share their passion and they’ll look after regulars. Find a good one and you’ll never go wrong.” Now that’s good advice.

Things to do at The Sydney Fish Market:
• Shop for all your fresh fish needs
• Take a behind the scenes tour starting with the Dutch auction
• Have fish’n’chips on the wharf
• Share a Yum-Cha lunch
• Do your grocery shopping
• Take a cooking class at Sydney Seafood School
• Get to know your fishmonger