Hooked on tinned fish

It’s a star of TikTok and Instagram, with millions of devoted fans and associated hashtags used tens of millions of times. It’s an at-home friend and a constant travel companion, a familiar staple and aspirational lifestyle product. It’s tinned fish. And it’s got everybody hooked.

In recent years, tinned fish has moved from food product to full-blown lifestyle. It was dubbed “hot girl food” by Caroline Goldfarb, the founder of Fishwife, a young and very self-aware tinned fish company that cannily pairs its top-shelf products with sunny, brash, hand-illustrated branding. It’s the star of flat-lay Instagram photos of “seacuterie” boards, the sardines, mackerel, mussels or even octopus luxuriating in a bath of olive oil among veggies and crusty sourdough bread. And if you want to guarantee a good first night out with a prospective new mate, what better way than to make it a #tinnedfishdatenight?

Part of the current craze may be because America has loudly come to know what countries like Portugal, Spain and Italy have quietly known all along: tinned fish deserves a place at the table. Anchovies are a regular staple in Italian pasta sauces, and a variety of Iberian conservas regularly feature in local cuisine. In recent years travel to Portugal has skyrocketed, and the world’s newfound passion for classic tinned fish brands like Nuri, Oritz, Berthe and Cocagne may be increasing in the direct proportion to the number of foreigners who can claim to have enjoyed a “tomato girl summer” (the Gen Z take on the dolce vita) while sipping a Vinho Verde in a café overlooking the Douro.

However, the trend may have its origins in a much more prosaic reality. During the pandemic, panic-induced scarcity drove many to stock up on supplies to outlast lockdown. The priority was toilet paper; the second was food. Fresh fish was less accessible, and the often-old school vintage packaging of century-old, tinned fish brands no doubt felt comforting, a colourful reminder of simpler times. Stuck at home, stuck on Zoom, and stuck in our pyjamas, we had no one to cook for but ourselves. In that moment, the humble tinned anchovy stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight. It’s infinitely stockable and infinitely simple. Just pop a tin, fork out the fish meat over bread or crackers, and you’ve got a meal.

Or at least the start of one. According to a thousand tinned fish aficionados, the essential pairing to any tinned fish is acid. Think lemons, capers or tomatoes. Sourdough bread. Or a glass of wine. Herbs and vegetables are nice, too, especially dill or fennel. You can really do anything with tinned fish, but the beauty is that you don’t have to do much. Despite the recent spate of tinned fish cookbooks with titles like The Magic of Tinned Fish, as foods go, tinned fish couldn’t be simpler.

Our collective passion for tinned fish may be good news for the environment and for our health. Fish has long been considered an essential part of the Mediterranean diet and is equally important in the newly coined “Atlantic diet” as well. It’s rich in protein, vitamins, and omega-3s (though you could also just get those straight from the source). Forage fish, like sardines, herring, and anchovies – the same that regularly show up in tins – have a remarkably low carbon footprint compared to other animal proteins. A recent study suggests that substituting red meat with these forage fish could save up to 750,000 lives annually by reducing diet-related diseases and significantly lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Which means that even long after your tomato girl summer is over and your photos of Lisbon or Barcelona are buried in your feed, the charm of tinned fish will endure. With its rich history and essential role in many classic cuisines, tinned fish is simple, sustainable and timeless – and has got us all hooked.