Consider the Anchovy: On the Fantasies and Lies of Tinned Fish

Lovers of trendy tinned fish act like anchovies are bountiful, sustainable, and barely animals at all. None of that is true.

Photo: Natasha Breen / Getty Images

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A key difference between David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece “Consider The Lobster” and this article you are presently reading, is that I intend this as a bit of a polemic. Wallace on the other hand, upon diving deep into the life and death of the lobster in his anxiously footnote-riddled piece ostensibly covering the Maine Lobster Festival, claims he’s “not trying to give you a PETA-like screed” but is rather simply curious to ask the readers of Gourmet, where his essay originally appeared, “what ethical convictions you have worked out not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands?” Wallace’s question is unlikely to apply to my readers here at Vegetarian Times, but what follows is nevertheless a kind of screed against eating, savoring, and enjoying anchovies.

Why do I feel moved to write in defense of the anchovy specifically when I don’t think people should eat any animals at all? I asked myself that the whole time I wrote. Why was I particularly angry about the widespread use of anchovies among ‘cool chefs’ when those same chefs in question generally cook with all kinds of other animals, too? As I looked further into both the phenomenon and my soul, what bothered me most was that the anchovy appears to barely be regarded as an animal at all.

One can’t talk about the current wave of fascination with anchovies without talking about Alison Roman, who writes in her 2019 cookbook Nothing Fancy,“One of my defining character traits is ‘loves anchovies,’ for which I will not apologize.” I appreciate Roman’s big-flavor, medium-effort approach to cooking – and that she increasingly speaks to the importance of food sustainability. And yet, on the Prime Rib Roast episode of her YouTube series Home Movies she provides a clear example of what I mean about anchovies getting short shrift.

In the episode, Roman takes pains to explain that she thinks red meat should be enjoyed sparingly and that it should cost what it takes to sustainably, ‘humanely’ raise and slaughter cows, pigs, lambs, etc. Then she goes and slathers her hunk of rarified beef with a full tin of anchovies — six whole fish on average — then gleefully decides to add another entire tin with nary a word for these twelve fishes’ lives or deaths.

Five fresh whole anchovies isolated on white background
(Photo: antonio truzzi / Getty Images)

I was similarly rankled when Chef Karen Akunowicz recently told Huffington Post “If someone is anchovy-adverse, I ask if they like miso paste or Parmigiano-Reggiano,” adding, “I try to bridge the gap by offering other delicious and familiar ingredients that give shivers of umami…” If those ingredients provide said shivers, why try to convince people to eat more animals instead?

But the incident that finally inspired me to write this essay occurred last summer, when David Zilber posted on Instagram an eggplant tartthat looked completely amazing – and made my blood boil.

Zilber had slathered his eggplant slices in mashed anchovies before rolling them into glamorous rosettes for his otherwise-vegetarian dish. While I’d probably be annoyed if anyone did that, it particularly hit me as odd that Zilber, a fermentation expert likely in possession of an absolute trove of delicious plant-based ferments from around the world, would employ dead fish as seasoning.

‘Cool chefs’ use anchovies this way often, rubbing them onto other animals or plants to provide oomph, or melted into a sauce as a “secret ingredient.” While I would argue that any animal protein can be easily replaced in the home kitchen, I get that seitan roasts and tofu hams are not for everyone. Even some vegans prefer not to go that route for myriad reasons. But to suggest that the meaty, salty, briny je ne sais quoisthat anchovies bring about cannot be achieved with plants strikes me as a little uncreative. (Note: I share my own vegan alternatives to cooking with anchovies below.)

How Anchovies Became Hot Girl Food

Remember when everyone hated anchovies? What changed? It seems to me the tone of anchovy discourse in food media shifted from “They’re really not that gross, just try them!” to Bobby Flay calling them “the bacon of the sea” around 2014. That same year, having recently endured a financial crisis, Portugal began to aggressively reinvent its tourism industry. Over the next five years, young Americans would flock to reasonably-priced Lisbon and neighboring beach towns in droves. Tinned fish conservas are big in Portuguese cuisine and, as Anna Hezel, who’s writing a book on the topic, explained to Refinery29, “by traveling into this culture, Americans were learning how to eat tinned fish in a new way.”

Meanwhile in New York, David Chang and his ilk were making waves with their “Umami Project,”getting Americans increasingly hyped on the savory “fifth taste” that keeps you coming back for more. Anchovies have umami in spades, and their ability to add that restaurant-quality flavor-bomb without much work made their cultural capital go up. In 2018, one half of weird-but-prescient brand consultancy Nemesis texted the other from from a chic restaurant on the Upper West Side: “People no longer want sex. They want umami.”

I guess she was right, because in the next year it seemed like everyone on Food Instagram from Sohla El-Wayly to Yotam Ottolenghi was whipping legions of anchovies into everything from crispy potatoes to eggplant to chicken and fideos, and they only got cooler when the pandemic forced us to panic stock our pantries and cook all our meals at home.

By the summer of 2021, anchovies, along with their other canned buddies like sardines and mackerel, had become so trendy that tinned fish was dubbed “the ultimate hot girl food” in Nylon by Caroline Goldfarb, co-owner of trendy tinned fish company Fishwife.

By the summer of 2021, anchovies, along with their other canned buddies like sardines and mackerel, had become so trendy that tinned fish was dubbed “the ultimate hot girl food” in Nylon by Caroline Goldfarb, co-owner of trendy tinned fish company Fishwife.

In an article for MamaMia, Eleanor Katelaris adds, “Tinned fish is essentially giving us access to the lifestyle we wish we were having right now,” allowing the diner to imagine a dinner of fish and crusty bread enjoyed in an Italian fishing village while one’s hair is still salty from an evening dip.

All of this ties in with Navneet Alang’s assertion that “As the culinary has become a marker of contemporary culture…food media and social media have fused to create a supercharged form of aspirational desire.” I’m not immune, I want it too! One of the reasons I’m obsessed with the anchovy trend is because I follow these ‘cool chefs’ and I suppose I wish I was as hot and beachy and effortlessly viral as they seem to be.

But I don’t like how clinging to some vaguely-Mediterranean fantasy life means we have to eat (and post on Instagram about eating) tinned fish all the time – and I am suspicious of the other fantasies that seem to underpin the tinned fish fad. It seems to me that the cool-food-fan’s guilt-free devotion to anchovies comes from a general belief that anchovies are a. an irreplaceable source of easy umami, b. infinitely sustainable, and c. hardly sentient creatures. As with all things Instagram-famous, the truth is not quite as breezily beautiful as it initially appears.

Interviewed in the same Nylon piece as Goldfarb, Tim Marchman, tech editor at Viceand author of the tinned fish newsletter “Popping Tins,” asserts that “[tinned fish] is a totally apolitical topic. It doesn’t have anything to do with culture wars or anything like that.”

I disagree. And so would many vegans as well as people concerned with climate change and the fate of our oceans.

What Are Anchovies?

The word anchovy refers to about 144 different species of small, bony fish with silvery bodies covered in thin, smooth scales. They have soft fins and, according to Bill François’s 2021 book, The Eloquence of the Sardine, “an immense mouth split all the way to behind the eyes, which…makes it look like a Muppet.” Most anchovies are less than six inches long and about two ounces in weight. Taxonomically speaking, anchovies are part of the order Clupeiformes, alongside herrings, sardines, and sprats, and are part of the family Engraulidae. They are also classified as “small pelagic fish,” a group that lives in sunlit waters up to 655 feet deep within about thirty miles of most of the temperate coastlines in the world.

They are known as “forage fish,” which means they eat plankton – a catch-all term for all the tiny plants and animals that drift on the currents of the sea – and are, in turn, gobbled up by larger fish, marine mammals, and sea birds. As Dr. William Sydeman of the Farallon Institute told me, “Almost everything eats anchovy or eats something that eats anchovy, so they’re very important in the food chain no matter where you are in the world.”

Adult anchovies typically hang out in large groups called shoals and schools. In biologist Jonathan Balcombe’s What a Fish Knows, he explains that “a shoal is a group of fishes who have gathered together in an interactive, social way.” Clupeid fish are thought to communicate using visual information such as light reflected off their mirror-like scales by day, and with an audible fart-like behavior by night. When shoaling, fish hang out preferentially with specific individuals and recognize one another, and familiar fishes show more efficient behavior when schooling — a school being “a more disciplined form of shoaling, in which fishes swim in a more orderly fashion.” Anchovies school when they’re in transit or when predators are afoot. If you’ve ever tripped out on David Attenborough-narrated footage of a gazillion teeny, silvery fish racing through the water and all turning at once as if on cue, that’s schooling.

“Having researched fish for years, I am thoroughly convinced that fishes are every bit as sophisticated and complex as the land animals that we tend to hold in higher esteem.”

Their finely-tuned sensory systems allow anchovies to form what is known as a bait-ball, a super-tight, coordinated entity formed in the face of predators and intended to both confuse the anchovies’ pursuers and protect as many individuals of their group as possible. Bait-balls look for all the world like a tornado or writhing ghost-monster and require a kind of speedy coordination and collaboration of which our species can only dream.

Unfortunately for them, all these shoaling and schooling skills get anchovies in trouble when it comes to their number one predator. Humans take advantage of their tendency to hang in groups, encircling entire shoals in giant purse seine nets, or pursuing schools with midwater trawlers, hauling them up by the thousands in regions where such abundance still exists.

Dr. Claire Saraux of the French National Centre for Scientific Research told me that anchovies are usually dead by the time they reach the deck of the boat.

“If they are fished with trawlers, it could last an hour, two hours. The idea is that the fish are swimming in front of the trawl and sometimes they get really tired. And that’s why they actually enter the trawl.” When caught by purse seine, anchovies are sometimes still alive for a few minutes after surfacing, but many get crushed under the weight of their fellow fishes in the net. “You bring them from maybe 100 meters deep to the surface. There are a lot of things happening,” Saraux said.

When I asked her if she thought it was a painless death, she laughed and said, “I don’t know if it’s painless! But [in comparison to larger fish] it’s quicker for sure.” So, I guess there’s that.

Do Fish Even Feel Pain?

In high school an otherwise-vegetarian friend was convinced eating fish was fine because they don’t have nerves. Later, when I was on my own path to veganism but was still eating fish, a friend reassured me “they’re basically just plants with faces.” This kind of thinking seems to persist in the collective unconscious, and indeed the idea that fish do not feel pain has been believed and promoted by scientists until relatively recently, based on erroneous and anthropocentric understandings of evolution and what Balcombe calls “corticocentrism” — the debunked claim that animals require a neocortex in order to feel pain.

A freshly caught anchovy sits in a net on a boat
A freshly caught anchovy sits in a net on a boat (Photo: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

In 2016, University of Queensland professor Brian Key — one of the last standing corticocentrics — published “Why Fish Do Not Feel Pain” in the journalAnimal Sentience and, well, the fish science community went off. Over 40 rebuttals poured in from across the globe, citing the wide body of research that proves that fish do feel pain and are sentient beings.

As science writer Ferris Jabr noted a few years after Key’s unpopular foray, “the notion that fish do not have the cerebral complexity to feel pain is decidedly antiquated. Scientists agree…that a cerebral cortex as swollen as our own is not a prerequisite for a subjective experience of the world.”

Balcombe’s book details pain experiments, but also examples of fish playing with objects, aquarium currents, and even a family cat, just to have some fun. Balcombe describes a diver’s relationship with a grouper named Larry who regularly swims to her, even rolling to his side “to be petted properly, as a dog or a pig will do.” There are accounts of fish acting with compassion, such as goldfish Big Red, who would swim beneath his disabled pal Blackie, propelling him to access food sprinkled on the surface of their tank.

“Collectively, bony fishes – which anchovies are – all have complex vertebrate lives with individual personalities,” Balcombe told me. “Having researched fish for years, I am thoroughly convinced that fishes are every bit as sophisticated and complex as the land animals that we tend to hold in higher esteem.”

But Small Fish Are More Sustainable! (Aren’t They?)

If you still want to eat them, some anchovies are indeed a better choice in terms of sustainability compared to other seafood choices. One of the anchovy brands “cool chefs” often recommend is Ortiz, which exclusively sells Cantabrian anchovies caught in the Bay of Biscay. The Bay shares its coast with France and Spain and, according to Saraux, this helps to ensure well-monitored fisheries. “Because fisheries from both France and Spain want to fish, they control a lot of what the other one’s doing as well,” she said.

Saraux’s research shows that anchovies in other areas are not faring as well. “If you look at the Adriatic Sea, which is in between Italy, Croatia, and Slovenia, anchovies have been overexploited there for a while. Every year we say so. There is a management plan there, there are quotas, and so on, but the area is still not doing well because of overfishing.” Plus, a combination of environmental factors appear to be taking their toll on anchovies in the western area of the Mediterranean, where both anchovies and sardines are significantly smaller than they once were.

When I asked Saraux point-blank if it’s okay to eat anchovies from an environmental perspective, she explained that “it’s not just about the species. It’s mainly about where it comes from and how it was fished.” While Saraux doesn’t think humans eating them is currently the anchovy’s single biggest problem on a global scale, it could still be locally important.

“As the climate warms, the land desiccates, and fisheries fail, we are now at a point where the Mediterranean can no longer support the Mediterranean diet.”

Paul Greenberg, author of The Climate Diet, paints a devastating picture of this kind of local impact in his account of a night spent on an anchovy fishing boat off of the Amalfi Coast fishing village of Cetara. Still famous for its colutura – a fermented fish sauce similar to the garums of ancient Rome – Cetara’s fishery workers must resort to more extreme measures, including elderly crew members sitting for hours in lamp-lit dinghies, to attract enough of the area’s now-thin anchovy population to make the night’s work worthwhile. Greenberg illustrates how, among other factors, a combination of millenia of unregulated overexploitation, a general lack of enforcement of current regulations, and rising ocean temperatures mean that the village’s colatura has become unsustainable.

“As the climate warms, the land desiccates, and fisheries fail, we are now at a point where the Mediterranean can no longer support the Mediterranean diet,” he writes.

I asked Dr. William Sydeman about anchovies in California, and his response was equally ambivalent. He concedes that it’s possible that there are sustainable anchovy stocks, but explained that “when you look at this globally, the fisheries for small fish are highly controversial because you’re removing a keystone species in the food chains. And people just don’t know it.”

He went on to explain that small pelagics are very sensitive to changes in the ocean environment and therefore a “good barometer for what’s going on in terms of climate in ocean ecosystems.” Anchovy populations have always ebbed and flowed depending on a given year’s particular weather, but these fluctuations are not always accounted for when fishery quotas are set. “About fifteen years ago the population really declined here in California and nobody was paying attention,” Sydeman told me. “When they’re depleted, the effects of fishing go up, unless you modify your allowable quota. If it varies relative to biomass in the environment, that’s one thing, but in California we still have, for the most part, a static quota,” meaning fisheries can take the same amount each year, regardless of how many fish are actually there.

A worker checks tins on the production line at a commercial fish cannery
A worker checks tins on the production line at a commercial fish cannery (Photo: Horacio Villalobos / Corbis / Getty Images)

Further, the vast majority of anchovies caught in California – and worldwide – aren’t being caught for people to directly eat. They are used as bait for other fisheries, ground down into fish oil, or made into pellets that are fed to factory-farmed animals, including farmed fish.

Both Saraux and Sydeman argue the impact on the complete ecosystem is being missed in the discourse around the sustainability of small fish. While there are definitely more of them and they reproduce more quickly than larger fish, “when you start to affect their population, you affect those ecological interactions,” Sydeman said. His team is currently especially troubled by the exploitation of anchovies in South Africa. “Fisheries there are thought to be negatively affecting the endangered African penguin and causing substantial population decline,” he said. Sydeman’s research group published a paper in 2021 arguing for the continued closure of fisheries near the penguin colonies. While the paper has caused controversy, Sydeman remains hopeful. “If you want to have something sustainable for 100 years, you have to take it easy,” he said. “And we’re just not very good at that.”

Vegan Alternatives to Anchovies

I am not a hot girl. I do not do hot girl shit. But I am blessed/cursed with a weirdly overdeveloped “taste cortex,” meaning I pretty much still recall what anchovies taste like in spite of being a vegan, and I doobsessivelyread cookbooks and vegan Facebook groups, and my favorite thing to do with my spare hours is try to create fantastic, complex flavors by harnessing fermentation.

And, as a result, I can confidently say: you simply do not need to cook with anchovies. You can get that easy, breezy umami elsewhere.

I am not the first to think so, of course. Thanks to Buddhist temple food traditions, vegan Vietnamese fish sauce has been in production for a long time, both commercially and by various chefs employing everything from pineapple to seaweed to get at the signature sweetness and funk. Afia Amoako, author of the popular vegan West African food blog, The Canadian African, makes a version of the Ghanian hot sauce shito, typically made with dried anchovies and shrimp, using dried shiitakes and nori. Many recipes can be found online for vegan versions of bagoong, a pungent Filipino condiment traditionally made from small fish like anchovies and scads, but handily replaced with fermented black beans of various types. Food writer Gayle Schindler recommends quality kalamata olives in place of anchovies in her “Magic Green” sauce for those observing kashrut traditions. Capers stand in for anchovies nicely in Julia Turshen and Isa Chandra Moscowitz’s caesar salad dressing recipes, and fried ones are still my go-to when I want my anchovy-esque component to have a little bite.

Over the years I have also used miso and powdered seaweed as stand-ins when recipes called for anchovies, and umeboshi paste really changed the game for me. As I’ve written elsewhere, I learned about umeboshi – a Japanese fermented plum – from Nadine Abensur, and soon found out what an everyday ingredient they are in Japan, frequently served inside rice balls or used to flavor a simple wafu pasta. Especially when mixed with dried, powdered seaweed — dulse, kelp, and wakame are all delicious! — I found the plum paste just about nailed that anchovy-esque note.

“When do we stop overusing things? When do we start eating responsibly and stop eating by trend? I think that people in food media have to start getting more nuanced and getting more deep about what it means to make an ingredient cool, and what effect that has on ecosystems.”

When Alison Roman’s shallot pasta recipe became a hit, I was convinced I could do it even though half the recipe is fish. By that point I had read Miyoko Schinner’s The Homemade Vegan Pantry, in which she uses brine from a jar of fermented tofu in her vegan fish sauce. Known as fu ru or jiang dou fu in Chinese or chao in Vietnamese, fermented tofu is a strongly-flavored, creamy wonder, commonly used as a seasoning for vegetables, congee, and various braises. (If you’re into the aspirational desire thing, check out YouTuber Dianxi Xiaoge making fermented tofu from soybeans hand-harvested in her pastoral Yunnan home.) Inspired by Schinner’s recipe, I thought using the pungent tofu itself might add a little heft to my sauce alongside umeboshi paste and ground seaweed (about a tablespoon of each replaces a full tin of fish), and it truly brought the final funk I was after.

I gifted a batch of my veganized shallot pasta sauce to two anchovy-loving friends, and they said if it wasn’t for the little green flecks of seaweed, they would never have known the difference. A perfect facsimile of animal ingredients isn’t always my goal – usually I’m just aiming to make something delicious – but in this case I was chuffed.

When I asked climate-focused food writer Alicia Kennedy about the whole anchovy thing, she succinctly said, “When do we stop overusing things? When do we start eating responsibly and stop eating by trend? I think that people in food media have to start getting more nuanced and getting more deep about what it means to make an ingredient cool, and what effect that has on ecosystems.”

I’m under no illusion that the anchovy replacements I suggest here are going to save the world, nor am I naive enough to think that plant-based ingredients are automatically environmentally benign. And I don’t know how to employ the fisherfolk whose jobs would disappear if everyone heeds this screed overnight. I also know not everyone has the time to apply ancient fermentation techniques to locally-grown ingredients and that store bought umeboshi paste and fermented tofu are typically imported from across the world, which isn’t great, environmentally-speaking.

But I still think it’s worth considering, from all sorts of angles, how we might make super-flavorful food using plants instead of animals, simply because of good, old-fashioned care for the lives and suffering of our fellow beings on earth. So much of what I read on ‘plant-based eating’ these days is motivated by climate change, and I get that – but I’m also just sad about all the creatures that die all the time when you can make something just as tasty without.

(Photo: Spondylolithesis / Getty Images)

Between those that feed us directly and those ground down to feed other farmed animals, François writes that “more than 6.2 million metric tons of anchovy – amounting to every other anchovy alive – gets caught each year.” By Balcombe’s estimation, that’s some 60 billion individual fishes. And that feels like a lot.

When I asked Sydeman what anchovies are like up close, his face lit up – and what he said punched me in the guts. “They’re totally cool. They’re surprisingly robust in a sense…they’re really neat fish. They’re very flashy. Very, you know, beautiful.”

RELATED: Hongos Forever: Modern Vegan-Mexican Cuisine Chefs ‘Reawaken the Ancestral Memory’ with Mushrooms

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