Little Fishes, Healthy and Delicious

Jonathan Harris | September 2020

Spain is in love with tiny fish. As an American, this is one of the most foreign aspects of Spanish cuisine. In the U.S., there is not much appreciation for small fish - sardines are a cheap canned fish often smothered in mustard, and anchovies are most often found roasted to oblivion on pizza. Finding a freshly cooked sardine or anchovy is frustratingly rare.

But in Spain, small fish can be found at restaurants around the country. I've tasted them charred black over a charcoal grill, deep fried in garbanzo flour, pickled in vinegar, canned at the peak of freshness or cold-smoked over oakwood. 

These little treasures are celebrated in Spain for their deliciousness, but, like other important foods in Spanish cuisine, it turns out they are incredibly good for your health. High in protein and rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, they are a veritable super food. And because they are so small and relatively short lived, they have no buildup of mercury or other harmful contaminants.

When you visit Spain, you must taste the little fishes whenever you see them at a tapas bar or restaurant. It will open your eyes to a culinary treasure! Here are five of my favorites in Spain.

1. Sardinas - Sardines

Every summer the beaches are packed in El Puerto de Santa María. When we lived there, we went to the beach often, spreading out our towels and looking across the bay to the ancient city of Cádiz, founded by the Phoenicians. Young men juggled soccer balls on the shore as kids splashed in the sea. After a while we would get hungry, so we braved the hot sand and walked to the nearby 'chiringuito,' a pop-up tapas bar built right on the sand.

In the U.S. you might find a shack selling hot dogs and soft serve ice cream at the beach. There we sat at a table and ordered a couple of frosty cañas (small beers). I looked over and saw a man placing fresh whole sardines onto a charcoal grill. As the skin charred, he deftly flipped them over to cook on the other side. This I had to try!

For a few euros I bought a plate of three. My wife and I gently pulled the fillets away from the bones and savored the delicious white fish. Tender, rich and flaky, the taste of those sardines is locked in my memory. The secret? The sardines were extremely fresh, possibly caught that very morning. I fantasize about returning to El Puerto and tasting those amazing sardines again.

2. Anchoas - Anchovies

Like many 'norteamericanos,’ anchovies were not a favorite of my youth. Again, it was because I was exposed to low quality anchovies that had not been treated with the care and reverence they deserve. I only became an anchovy fanatic after visiting the seafood masters at Nardín in the Basque Country.

Zumaia is a small fishing village tucked into the craggy shoreline of the Basque Country. The Oliveri family sources only fresh products from the local seafood auction for their company, Conservas Nardín, so they have very limited production. If the local fishermen didn't catch it, they can't make it.

Because they never use frozen seafood or fish caught in faraway ports, the raw material is exceptional. We visited their small factory and saw a circle of women slicing fillets from silvery anchovies as they chatted away. The fillets were then stacked in a circle and sprinkled with sea salt. When enough anchovies were added, a heavy stone ring was placed on top, pressing the fish and removing the excess moisture. Then they were left to age in refrigeration for a few months. Finally, they were rinsed, then placed one by one into cans and topped with olive oil.

Señor Oliveri served his anchovies at a small table near his office along with a loaf of bread and some bottles of water. Just opening the can changed my perspective on anchovies. The fillets were plump and dark pink, glistening with oil. As I took a bite, I couldn't believe the silkiness of the anchovy. It had a full anchovy flavor and a bold saltiness balanced by the richness of the fish. It had none of the harsh intensity and chalky texture I had come to fear from my childhood anchovy traumas. This was a seafood bursting with flavor and reverently made to preserve its delicate texture. I was hooked!

3. Boquerones en Vinagre - White Anchovies

Boquerones en vinagre are anchovy fillets as well, but a world away in flavor and texture. In fact, the first time I tasted them in a tapas bar in Madrid, I had no idea they were anchovies at all. The secret is how they are preserved. Unlike anchovies which are preserved in salt, boquerones en vinagre are pickled. Fresh anchovy fillets are covered in a simple vinaigrette, and acid in the wine vinegar 'cooks' them so that they turn white and tender.

The result is a very mild, delicate fillet with a bright tartness and very little fishiness. You can find them on ensaladas and canapés, but I enjoy eating them with slices of good bread and a glass of Albariño or other tasty white wine.

4. Boquerones Fritos – Fried Whole Anchovies

Andalucía is the land of ‘pescaito frito,’ translated as the best darned fried fish in the world! My favorites are boquerones fritos, which are small fresh anchovies lightly coated in garbanzo flour then deep fried until crispy. These little fishes are so mild and tender that they usually don’t remove the head, tail or bones before cooking. You simply nibble on the finger sized fish and wash them down with a refreshing glass of Manzanilla sherry or white wine. Whether you are at a restaurant overlooking the beaches of Malaga or sitting at a tapas bar in the shadow of the Giralda tower in Sevilla, you will find these addictively crisp, delicious fried anchovies across the region.

5. Sardinillas – Tiny Canned Sardines

Verdant Galicia is surrounded by the nutrient rich waters of the north Atlantic Ocean. Six beautiful estuaries (the ‘Rías Baixas’) reach into the land, providing a wealth of delicious seafoods. One of my favorites are sardinillas. These tiny little sardines are the size of your pinky finger, and the Gallegos (as the people of Galicia are known) have perfected the art of capturing their mild yet delicious taste in cans.

Hours after harvest, these little fish are cleaned, then poached and placed by hand, one-by-one, into cans. They are topped with olive oil and sealed shut just a few miles from where they were harvested. This meticulous, painstaking canning process is why Galician sardinillas are so good. They have a clean, mild flavor and smooth texture ideal for canapés and fresh salads. I love to simply pop them into my mouth, they are that good!

There are many other delicious little sea creatures that I love to eat in Spain, from tiny fried flounder called ‘acedias’ to exceptionally small squid called ‘puntillitas.’ Because it is so hard to find fish like this in the U.S., it is one of the great pleasures of traveling to Spain. Like Ibérico ham and extra virgin olive oil, these little fishes taste so good it is hard to believe that they are also amazingly good for you.

If you live close to a fishing port, I encourage you to go to the local seafood market and see if you can find fresh small fish to try them for yourself. Or you can buy the canned versions from La Tienda, I promise you will be glad you did! Or you can dream of traveling to Spain, grabbing a table at the local Plaza Mayor and ordering some of the best seafood you will every taste.