The act of eating seafood these days is as much a responsibility as a pleasure. The last of our foods taken from the wild, some fish are harvested conscientiously, some are not. Many species of fish are in danger of depletion, including the beloved tuna. It and other large fish also contain varying levels of harmful mercury, the result of industrial pollution and naturally occurring processes.
The fish that we farm come with their own problems — they harbor diseases, pollute the environment — the same issues associated with livestock. In this complex calculus of eating healthy and conscionable fish, the perfect fish crop might just be the sleek and humble sardine.
Sardines, the name given to dozens of related species of small, silvery, oily fish, are found in most of the world's oceans but most associated with fisheries in the Mediterranean and Atlantic oceans. They are commonly canned, used as bait, and turned into fish meal.
They are very high in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D (rarely found in food unless it is added), and calcium (when their very soft bones are consumed). The fish is a big part of the Mediterranean diet, considered among the world's healthiest and largely responsible for the long life spans, and low rates of obesity and heart disease in that part of the world.
Sardines also contain very low amounts of contaminants like mercury and PCBs since they are small and low on the food chain. According to a study by the FDA (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration), sardines contain, on average, nearly undetectable amounts of methylmercury, about .016 parts per million.
Fish like shark and swordfish contain about 100 times those concentrations; even fish like halibut, bass, and tuna contain 20 to 40 times those concentrations. Sardines are among the few wild fish to make the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Super Green" list of seafood that is both healthy and sustainably harvested.
Here in the Northwest, we love our seafood and, at least outwardly, professes to care about our relationship to our environment, and the integrity of the food we consume. Sardines, therefore, would seem a natural staple in our diets, but curiously, sardines are just about the most difficult seafood to find on a restaurant menu anywhere. Even fish markets do not sell them. (To be clear, we are talking about fresh sardines, not canned.)
In general, we like our fish big, meaty, mild in flavor, and preferably filleted. We make exceptions for shellfish, which we eat in abundance and in great variety. Few of us, though, love sardines.
One of the few restaurateurs to serve them locally is chef Ethan Stowell, who has opened four celebrated restaurants in Seattle (Tavolata, How To Cook A Wolf, Anchovies & Olives, and the recently shuttered Union). Stowell plans to open his newest restaurant, Staple & Fancy Mercantile, on Ballard Avenue by the end of the month. It and Anchovies & Olives might just be the only places in town where you can reliably expect to find a well-prepared, fresh sardine, salted, grilled over a wood fire, and served whole with a squirt of lemon.
"We'êll order them every week (at Staple & Fancy)," said Stowell, who considers grilled sardines among his favorite dishes. "If they come in, they"ll be on the menu."
Stowell also tries to keep them on the menu at Anchovies & Olives, which served them last week. Demand for the highly perishable sardine (and for that matter all small fish like anchovies and smelt) is growing but modest, Stowell said. Twice a week, he puts in an order for fish (including sardines) from a wholesaler in Boston. East Coast suppliers make it easier for him to find the kinds of atypical fish he serves, like branzino and dorade. Stowell is one of the few chefs who will serve fresh anchovies, another small, full-flavored fish that requires some ultra-creative sourcing.
"The anchovies I get from out here, I'm not supposed to technically be serving them," said Stowell. "I'm getting them from bait shops (in places like Westport). It's not necessarily an approved source, but there's nothing better than 10 pounds of live fish."
The consumption of sardines by Americans, particularly West Coast Americans perhaps, challenges our inclination to be fussy, squeamish, somewhat paradoxical eaters. We don't like bones. We don't like to see heads on the creatures we eat. We do not like skin. In fact the less the animals we eat resemble animals, the better. We like fish, but only if they do not taste "fishy."
Sardines, like anchovies, mackerel, and other rich, oily fish, have a deep and lasting flavor. To those who love it — I am one of them — it tastes like the ocean and the life that springs from it. To those who do not like fishiness, it simply stinks.
Bland fish like halibut and cod do well with sauces that give them more aroma and fat. Sardines need very little of the two, and chefs like Stowell understand that. Grilling adds no oil or liquid. Lemon provides the little bit of acid that cuts through the natural oils of the sardine, and complements its flavor.
It says something about sardines that chefs who know seafood all love them. Chef Christine Keff of Flying Fish is one of them. She occasionally offered fresh, grilled sardines as a daily special, at Flying Fish, which recently relocated to South Lake Union. She too had to source them from out of the area, finding a wholesaler in Monterey Bay, Calif., from whom she ordered 10 pounds at a time, "hard but not impossible," Keff said. Once in her restaurant, the fish lasted only a few days before spoiling. Typically she sold about half of the 10 pounds she ordered. It has been more than a year since she put them on her menu.
"We bring them in just for fun," said Keff, who learned to appreciate simply prepared seafood while traveling through southeast Asia. "They're not expensive. Most of the time, we (the staff) end up eating them ourselves."
"Sardines are fighting their low-end image," she said. "When people come out to eat, they like to eat something special, and they do not see sardines in that light. But for someone who is completely into food, I think they would jump at the chance to eat fresh sardines.
Sardines might be the only food synonymous with cans. The phrase, packed like sardines, is among the most popular in our language and immediately brings to mind an image of small fish stuck to one another in a shallow can. Canned sardines were popular in the U.S. in the early 20th century, succeeding, perhaps too well for the product's own good, as a lunch-bucket food. (The Tilikum Place CafÃ© in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood serves an up-market version of a canned-sardine sandwich.) We have come to prefer things like turkey breast and pasta salad, evidenced earlier this year by the closure of the last sardine cannery in the U.S.
The industry prospered for most of the 1900s on both coasts. John Steinbeck'ês novel, "Cannery Row" was based on California's sardine industry. Last April, the Stinson Seafood cannery in Prospect Harbor, Maine, closed after operating for 100 years, unable to process and sell enough sardines to justify its operation.
A sardine comeback, while probably not imminent, seems to be gaining some momentum. The fish has a lot to recommend for health, and eco-conscious eaters. They are inexpensive and easy to prepare.
Tastes and perceptions would have to change, but that has happened in the past. Lobster was once fed to convicts and dogs before it became a luxury food. With the right marketing, peasant food can become gourmet food. Organ meat, fatty pork belly, and less desirable bird parts like chicken wings have risen in profile and demand recently. The highly sought-after but politically incorrect Chilean sea bass (an overfished species) languished in dining obscurity when it was known by its common name, the Patagonian toothfish.
A sardine comeback in Seattle, it seems, is up to the creativity of chefs and the trust given to them by diners. Brian Durbin, chef at the Black Bottle, used to serve an Asian-inspired sardine appetizer that had a loyal if limited following. He floured and flash-fried the sardines whole but for the heads, and over them poured a tart and spicy vegetable sauce made from soy sauce, vinegar, sweet rice wine, and finely chopped Chinese cabbage, onions, Thai chilies, and bell peppers. Six months ago, he took them off the menu after serving them for four years. He usually sold four or five orders per night.
Durbin said he had to order his sardines three weeks ahead of time from a special source, from whom he bought them frozen in three-pound blocks. The prep was a little tedious.
"It was in a sub-category on the menu," Durbin said. "Now we serve octopus 'ê¦ but I'm not against bringing that dish back. I think there is some type of following for it in this city."