Small Fish, Big Bite: All About Anchovies

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

There was always a fresh sleeve of Saltines, and crumbs would spill onto the counter when it was torn open. That's when my dad would peel back the lid on a can of anchovies.

As a kid, the sight and smell left me squirming at his hip. But I couldn't turn away. I had to watch as he'd lift a single, fuzzy fillet from the tin with surgical precision. He'd hold it in front of me longer than necessary before gently dropping it onto one of those salty crackers, where it would curl under its own weight and bleed oil onto the porous canvas.

The notion of good things coming in small packages rings loud with anchovies. Hiding in the fish's tiny silver glory are vitamins A, B-6, B-12, C, E, and K, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and niacin, to name a few. They're one of the most sustainable fish out there, resilient to fishing pressures with a quick reproductive cycle.

And of course they're wonderful to eat: savory and succulent, full of salt and brine, a reminder that some foods are perfect as-is.

What exactly are anchovies and how do they get from sea to tin? Read on to find out.

Anchovy 101

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[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

Why do anchovies tastes so meaty? As we noted in our taste test of anchovy filets, "[Anchovies] are a concentrated source of glutamic and inosinic acid—two molecules responsible for triggering our sensation of savoriness." The very first anchovies were used much how they're cooked today: as a way to add intense savoriness to food that mere salt can't provide.

There are nearly 150 species of anchovies found in cooler waters across the globe. The fish prefer temperatures in the low 60s (in Fahrenheit), which is why the North Atlantic, Mediterranean, Black, and Azov Seas are where many live, and most are fished. Anchovies can live up to four years (reproducing at two) and reach lengths of eight inches, but the market's high demand and commercial fishing mean it's rare that the fish actually live that long.

According to Food and Agriculture Organization, the production of salted anchovies jumped from 49,600 tonnes (1 tonne = 1,000 kilograms) to 72,500 between 2000 and 2008. But curing anchovies is a centuries-old practice, and the process and product haven't changed much in the past few hundred years.

The earliest form of salting anchovies dates back to late Roman and Medieval times, when fish scraps were placed in large vessels with salt, which would draw moisture from the fish and create a sort of pickling liquid known as liquamen. The liquamen was then strained and left to ferment in the sun, and the resulting briny brew—garum—was the world's first fish sauce.

Fast forward to Southwestern France in the 1700s. Though modern anchovy fishing technology is several centuries away, waters around the region are a hotbed of the industry. In the commune of Collioure, just north of the Spanish border, fishermen in small, brightly painted boats known as catalans fished for what many considered (and still do) to be the best anchovies in the world. In his New York Times bestseller Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky describes Collioure anchovies as "smaller, leaner, and more flavorful than their Atlantic cousins."

Collioure fishermen fished from May to October and kept to shallow waters, where schools of anchovies retreated after feeding on plankton further from shore. Anchovies are attracted to moonlight, so fishing took place at night when the moon's glow could be used as bait. Near the tail end of the 19th century, Collioure fishermen invented lamparos: lights they mounted to their boats to lure fish.

The technique worked—so much so that it eventually depleted the shallow water anchovy supply. To keep up with demand, anchovy fishermen sent out newer, bigger boats to deeper waters, marking the start of a new fishing industry.

The Modern Market

Left to right: a salt-packed anchovy, an oil-packed anchovy fillet, and a squiggle of anchovy paste. [Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

The Atlantic "cousin" anchovies that Kurlansky mentioned offhand are likely the ones you have in your pantry. Engraulis encrasicolus—European anchovies—are the most common commercial anchovy, both for their clean flavor and dense, sturdy flesh that can withstand the demand of today's fishing and curing methods. Once cured, they're also a succulent morsel of food with a perfect balance between savory and salty.

The Engraulis encrasicolus my dad eats come from Wegman's, and likely by way of Morocco, which is the world's leading producer of commercial anchovies. Peru boasts significant output as well, but many of the anchovies caught there (Engraulis ringens) are used for fishbait, and recurring currents of warm water caused by El Niño make the South Pacific a less reliable source.

You can buy fresh,* frozen, and dried varieties of anchovies, but most of what you'll find comes one of three ways: salt-packed, oil-packed, or puréed into paste with salt and oil. No matter how they're packed, the anchovies are cured with similar methods to the Collioure fishermen and Romans before them: just salt.

* If you can find them, fresh anchovies are an unmatched culinary delight. Very few foods have such a wonderfully natural salinity and, because of the fish's single-bite size, are so rewarding to eat. But they're a perishable product that rarely make it to markets.

The Cure

Wheel of fish

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Curing anchovies begins within hours of catching the fish—the faster the cure begins, the more it locks in the fish's natural flavor. Once the fish are hauled in they're kept on ice, then cleaned once the boat docks.

Cleaning involves removing the head and rinsing the fish, at which point they are layered in large bins with salt, covered and weighted down, and left to cure for six to eight months (bigger fish take longer to cure). The long cure tenderizes the flesh and brings a pink hue to the meat—an early tell of doneness. As Niki described in her taste test, salt is "what's responsible for breaking down the myosin in the fish, one of the muscle proteins that hold its flesh together, making it exceedingly easy to mash up and dissolve."

Now the big question: salt-packed or oil-packed? Oil-packed anchovies are just the filets; salt-packed anchovies are everything but the heads and tails—scales, fins, and bones are left intact and softened during the process. Salt-packed anchovies are prized by anchovy lovers for their blast of pristine fishy flavor, while oil-packed versions are slightly more subtle, though easier to eat.

When we put the two varieties to the test, we found salt- and oil-packed anchovies performed similarly in most uses, though the salt-packed version had a nice extra punch when eaten raw. As for anchovy paste, we recommend you skip it altogether.

Anchovies Around the World

[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

You don't need anything besides salt to preserve an anchovy, so the result after curing is a nutritious, if salty, natural product—boldly flavored and virtually limitless in applications.

They show up in Caesar salad, where the fish are mashed into a creamy dressing with garlic and egg yolk.* In Spain you'll find them pickled, fried, tangled with roasted peppers, wrapped around olives, laid over fresh butter on rounds of crunchy bread, and rolled about with hard boiled eggs. In Italy, anchovies are worked into puttanesca, a tomato sauce fortified with chilies, onion, olives, and capers. Bagna cauda, an emulsion of anchovy, cream, and garlic, also Italian, is a celebration of the fish's bright, pungent flavor. France honors the fish alongside tomato, olives, haricot verts, and tuna in its salade Nicoise.

* Though many claim the original Caesar salad was made with Worchestershire sauce, not anchovies.

But anchovies are cooked in kitchens well beyond Europe. In Kerala, a coastal region in southwest India, the small fish are steamed in banana leaves with ginger, turmeric, garlic, green chilies, and onions to make netholi vazhayilayil pollichathu. In Korea, dried versions of the fish are sautéed with soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar for a dish called myeolchi-bokkeum. In the Philippines, anchovies are fermented to create bagoong, a popular condiment that accompanies an array of dishes, though perhaps most commonly found alongside steamed vegetables in pinakbet.

Anchovies thrive in salty waters the world over, and wherever they appear they're loved by cooks with the same vigor as fine ham and cheese. You may not need to crack open a tin to give your dinner a boost, but if you do you'll be preserving a timeless—and delicious—tradition of using small fish for great purposes.

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