I love sardines. They’re not only beautiful fish, with their gleaming scales, streamlined bodies, and astounding synchronized swimming skills, but they seem to be engineered to be dependable, nutritious food. These little animals grow quickly, die young, breed in tremendous numbers, and contain lots of protein, omega-3s, vitamin D, and other beneficial nutrients.
Unfortunately, sardines have a scandalous reputation. Most Americans view them as cheap, lowbrow fare that is best consumed down by the train tracks, generally accompanied by fortified wines, tall tales, harmonica music, and lots of scratching.
As such, it can be surprising to learn that the sardine has a long-standing seat in the sushi pantheon. While we generally encounter sardines only after they have been quartered, drenched in oil or mustard sauce, and encapsulated in tin, the true potential of this diminutive fish far outstrips such an ignominious fate.
Sardines and similar fish have been used in sushi for over a century, and some of the most “traditional” edomae sushi dishes involve these tiny animals. That being said, only in the last five or so years have US sushi restaurants began to rediscover this minute delicacy. Matters are complicated by the fact that tremendous amounts of our domestic sardines are purchased by foreign fish farms, which whisk the away to be ground up into fish meal for bluefin tuna and other penned carnivores before our local chefs even have a chance to purchase them.
Luckily, things are changing. A loose affiliation of chefs, restaurateurs, and other stakeholders calling themselves “the Sardinistas” continues to pressure the seafood industry for access to these delicious little treasures – and it looks like the barriers may be breaking down.
The sardine revolution got a major boost this week when none other than the fabulous Oprah Winfrey declared them one of her top 25 superfoods. Winfrey’s website discusses the merits of sardine consumption and urges consumers to rediscover this forgotten treasure.
When heavy hitters like Winfrey weigh in on seafood issues, they can be serious game-changers. Sometimes it can be severely damaging (Paul Prudhome probably did more to wreck the heavily over-exploited Gulf of Mexico redfish stocks than any other single factor), but in this case, it’s very much a positive influence. Increasing consumer interest in sardines will shift out seafood demand to away from our traditional prey species, such as tuna, down the trophic scale to a level that is better able to withstand fishing pressure. Additionally, it will send market signals to the sardine industry, which may start to think twice before selling their entire catch to bluefin farms for a few handfuls of copper coins.
So, a few questions for my readership: What do you think about this? What are your impressions of the lowly sardine? Would you be willing to wipe the slate clean and give this little fish the opportunity to prove itself to you?
We have strong, sustainable sardine fisheries right here in North America, but sardine fishermen sell off the lion’s share of the catch as feed for aquaculture operations. If we the consumers begin to pay more than the tuna ranchers for sardines (and even with this overbidding, we’re still talking about incredibly inexpensive seafood here), it will become more economical for our seafood markets to start stocking them. We will start to see domestic sardines glistening on the ice in our fishmonger’s wetcase — whole, fresh, and glorious, just as nature intended. ¡Viva la sardinista!