Rámon Peña sardines in oil and a Negroni at Maiden Lane. Image courtesy of Maiden Lane.

For Sale: Tiny Fish, Literally Everywhere

The summer’s biggest food trend—micro-sized seafood, often served straight from the tin—is both mouth-watering and good for the environment.

by Zoe Dubno
Aug 20 2018, 10:00am

Rámon Peña sardines in oil and a Negroni at Maiden Lane. Image courtesy of Maiden Lane.

It is a well-documented fact that, in the summertime, we desire things that are small. Puffer jackets and blanket scarves are shorn and replaced by trendy matrix-baby sunglasses, short shorts, tiny handbags, and itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-yellow-polka-dot bikinis. This summer, American restaurants have followed suit, specifically on their seafood menus. Itsy-bitsy fish—the kind from tin cans with curling pull-tab lids—are taking over the plate real estate previously occupied by big tuna and salmon. But these are not the bracingly salty anchovies you’d find haphazardly strewn atop a pizza, nor are they the grey-matter supermarket sardines that resemble cat food. Instead, at restaurants of every stripe, bright, briny, and delicious smaller-scale fish are on display, and it’s the rare food trend that is both tasty and sustainable.

At Bacaro in New York’s Chinatown, there’s Insalata Acciuga, an egg, string bean, and fresh anchovy salad, the acidity and richness of which I dream about. At Cervo’s, a nearby Portuguese restaurant, there are a host of little fish on the menu: their fisherman’s breakfast offers sardines with tomatoes, pickles and toast, and for dinner, their lamb burger is topped with vinegar-marinated anchovies, a touch of fat and acidity Cervo’s lactose-intolerant chef Nick Perkins told me he likes in cheese’s stead. The steak at Tribeca’s Frenchette is accompanied by an umami-boosting anchovy butter, and Dimes on the Lower East Side uses fresh anchovies marinated in white wine vinegar (called boquerones in southern Spain) in its take on the Caesar salad.

The Insalata Accuiga—fresh anchovies, string beans, and a soft-boiled egg—at Bacaro in NYC. Image courtesy of Bacaro.

While the practice of preserving fish is by no means new, in the past few years, tiny seafood has gone from fringe to ubiquitous. “It’s becoming way more common, and less of an oddity than it was four or five years ago when we started doing this,” said Gareth Maccubbin, the founder of New York City bar Maiden Lane, which “aim[s] to provide the experience of a European conservas bar”—the Portuguese and Spanish term for the snackable tins of seafood—in Alphabet City. “Five years ago, there were only a couple of distributors and importers that had a couple of lines… But now, there’s a ton. When we were reaching out to retailers in Portugal and Spain, they absolutely did not believe we were selling this stuff at a bar in New York.” At Maiden Lane, a can of sardines from Asturia will set you back $9, and there’s finer fare, too: $55 for a tinful of Rámon Peña cockles, dug up from the sands of Galicia.

Hayden, one of a growing fleet of all-day-cafes in Los Angeles, serves their tinned fish in a distinctly pan-European style. Their menu lists “Spanish and Portuguese conserva,” served with bread, butter, and sauce gribiche, a French mayonnaise with bits of hard-boiled egg, capers, and herbs.

In one sense, the US is simply late to the party: snacking on tinned seafood is a ubiquitous practice across Europe. Conservas are incorporated into restaurant dishes or served on toast as a bar snack, and in Spain, corner stores called colmados stock a variety of seafood tins, usually consumed as finger foods. Plus, the tin can itself is a European invention. In the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic Wars, it was a solution to the logistical challenge of feeding an army stationed far from home. (Hilariously, the can opener wasn’t invented until decades later, leaving soldiers to smash the tins open with rocks, chisels, or their bayonets.) At first, “beef, mutton, carrots, parsnips, and soup,” as well as “fish and lobsters,” were conserved. These early iterations were seen as technological marvels, and in 1813, Queen Charlotte of England wrote a letter attesting that she’d tasted and enjoyed a sample of newly-available canned beef.

Workers canning sardines at a factory in Pontevedra, Spain. Photo by JMN/Cover/Getty Images

According to Maccubbin, American and European fish-canning practices differ greatly in both technique and philosophy. “The difference between the European products and Western mass fishing is that, in Europe, it’s not about just...catching as much as possible and putting it in the can. The European stuff is trying to fish at the peak of its season and preserve the best of the best to eat it year-round.” In contrast to joyless discs of Bumblebee tuna, he compares these preserved fish to “getting heirloom tomatoes and jarring them for the winter.”

There are clear benefits to sardines and their ilk inhabiting spots on menus usually reserved for tuna: even when cans and jars are marked “dolphin-safe,” tuna is frequently harvested using unsustainable fishing methods or at the detriment of other endangered species. The mercury levels in canned albacore tuna render it safe for a healthy adult to eat only three times a month. The smaller, more sustainable fish contain just a fraction of the mercury, as well as tons of protein, Omega-3s and calcium.

According to trend forecasts from the National Restaurant Association, sustainable seafood is the “4th hottest food trend” for 2018, and chefs and critics seem to be just as enthusiastic about them as diners are. Bon Appétit magazine’s Brad Leone told me in an effusive Instagram message that he’s a “HUGE fan of small fish! Everything eats them for a reason, they are full of nutrients! We can’t just eat tuna and salmon!” He recently included a can of Portuguese Bela brand mackerel packed in olive oil in his curated “CrateChef” box (a kind of BirchBox for gourmet ingredients).

Joint Venture chef Danny Newberg likes small fish for their flavor and versatility. “Anchovies are nice because they are funky, salty, fishy, and really intense. They add a lot to anything or [are] great to eat by themselves.” Beyond that, these fish are also appealing for their teeny scale. “Sardines, whiting, and Boston mackerel I also really love to grill and eat whole, or even eat raw. I like eating and serving whole animals. It means something different to give someone the whole beast.”

Perhaps the tiny fish trend will aid the restaurant-goer in evaluating the environmental effects of her animal consumption, all while matching her dinner to her handbag and capturing the primal joy of devouring an entire animal teeth to tail, even if that only spans about five inches. And if dining on miniature fish falls out of fashion, they can hang out in your pantry for years—the tins don’t need to be refrigerated—and wait to become gourmet vintage sardines.