Portugal Sardines? Yes, Please

Whole sardines fresh off the grill in summertime are not your grandma’s canned fish. Here are four reasons why you should give Portugal sardines a go.

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There’s an old refrain that you should never order fish on Monday because, historically, fishing boats didn’t go out to sea on Sundays, so fish served Monday is two days old.  But times – and refrigeration techniques — have changed.  Even Anthony Bourdain eventually gave fish on Mondays the green light.  And one delectable fish you can order on any summer day in Portugal is grilled sardines. 
Sardines, you ask, arching an eyebrow?  Depending upon your age, the first thing that might pop into your head upon mention of the word sardines is a cartoon prop along these lines:
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Still from Tom and Jerry. Warner Bros, please don’t sue me for copyright violation.
But in Portugal, grilled fish, and sardines in particular, are no laughing matter.  These small fish have long played a pivotal role in the economic and cultural history of the country.
The Portuguese coast is ideal for various Atlantic fish populations to thrive, particularly sardines, and sardines were a cheap, accessible way for the population to feed itself.  (Click here for a slideshow of some amazing old photos of Portuguese fishermen, and women selling the catch along the wharf.) Today, Portugal has the third highest per-capita consumption of fish in the world. It’s no wonder that the sardine, in particular, is a staple decorative theme in Portuguese folk art, notably inspired by the 19th century ceramic artist Raphael Bordallo Pinheiro.      
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Bordallo Pinheiro sardines in our US home
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A close up
Unfortunately, overfishing and climate change have led to regulations on sardine fishing, meaning that Portuguese sardines can’t be fished all year long, only after the fish have spawned.  This usually means that fishing season doesn’t kick into high gear until late spring or early summer, when the fish tend to be largest and most flavorful, and runs its course by early fall.  It’s for this reason that June is considered the peak time of the year for eating the best sardines.  June is also the month of the festas juninas, or local summer festivals celebrated in various cities throughout the country, which typically feature sardinhadas, or big meals of grilled sardines. 
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Typical festa junina
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Sardines grilling
If you’re not already convinced, read on for four reasons why you should eat grilled sardines in Portugal.

Sardines are Delicious

If you do not like to eat fish, read no further.  If you only like to eat fish that doesn’t taste “fishy”….well, you do not like to eat fish either.  For everyone else, fresh sardines have a flavor profile similar to mackerel: headier than a typical whitefish, with denser, more oily meat. (Personally, I think they pack a lighter flavor punch than, say, percebes, or gooseneck barnacles, which I tried here as part of the I Tried So You Don’t Have To series.)  In fact, both sardines and mackerel are often referred to as part of the blue-skinned or blue fish family, which includes fish with a higher fat content. As with a well-marbled steak, fattier fish like sardines tend to have more flavor, and they don’t need a ton of butter or creamy sauces to give them taste.  Grilled sardines in Portugal are basically just rubbed down with rock salt, thrown on the grill, and voilà.
Sardines become doubly delicious when served with the standard accompaniments: pepper salad – grilled green peppers, onions, black olives, olive oil, and salt – and roasted potatoes with molho verde, or green sauce – garlic, diced onions, parsley or cilantro, and olive oil.  Washed down with a bright vinho verde:  deelish.
ha sardinha
You’ll see these signs all over the place in summer at small or more casual restaurants, especially near the ocean. It basically means “we have sardines” since some people are looking for them specifically and not every place serves them.

A Whole Fish on Your Plate is Not as Scary As It Looks

Perhaps the biggest obstacle for the average American is the mere fact of a whole fish, including the head, being set down on a plate in front of you.  Even a fish that only measures a couple of inches.   Fish in the US tends to be served as filets, to the extent that Americans even eat fish at all: per capita consumption is one of the lowest among advanced economies, and less than half of Portugal. But eating filets is not only wasteful from an environmental perspective, it often limits you to the types of large fish big enough to easily cut filets from, like salmon or tuna.  (Sidebar: I hold the unpopular opinion that tuna is just a blah-tasting fish, compared to all the other types of fish and seafood I could be eating.  I make an exception for fatty tuna prepared in sushi, or toro, which is sublime.)
In the average Portuguese seafood restaurant, or marisqueira (sometimes called mariscaria), a fish that is small enough to fit on a dinner plate will generally be served to you whole, unless the menu offers filets.  Filets are more common in high-end restaurants, especially if they are trying to earn a Michelin star and need space to drizzle something decorative on the plate.  Otherwise, for larger fish, your server will prepare it for you table side, or in the kitchen before bringing it out.  But sardines are small, and a serving is around six fish depending on their size, so no server in the average marisqueira is going to stand there and do this for you.  The meat will go cold, and anyway, Portuguese waitstaff are busy taking care of 15 other tables at the same time.  Usually efficiently.
But it’s not complicated.  After grilling, the bones of the sardine, except for the spine, are soft.  You can eat them.  Here are three easy steps to get you through the rest:
  1. Start from the end of the fish near the tail.  Make a shallow cut in the body, and then run your knife under the meat, along the spine.  Continue doing this until just before you reach the head.  Pull out your knife, and make another cut at the top of the fish, just below the head.  This loosens the fish meat from the spine, and you can move it off the fish body as a filet by simply flipping it over, with the skin facing down.  Sardine skin is very thin and you can eat it.  It also has all the salt on it, so I recommend not trying to scrape off too much. 
  2. Pick up the tail, and carefully lift the spine up and away from the meat underneath it.  (You can use your knife and fork for this operation, but I doubt that anyone will look at you askance if you don’t.) The spine is attached to the head, so you can move the whole thing to the side of your plate (or an empty plate on the table if you’re with friends). You’ll be left with the bottom side of the fish ready to go as a filet.
  3. Eat.
Then, raise a glass to your new culinary sophistication.

Health Benefits of Eating Sardines

Are sardines healthy? You bet.  There are tons of nutritional benefits from eating sardines. Furthermore, as a small fish, sardines typically have a low level of mercury.

You Can Get the Idea By Eating Canned or Fried Sardines

If you really can’t handle a little fish head on your plate, you don’t have to miss out on sardines entirely because you can also eat them canned or fried sans head.
In the 19th century, the canning industry in Portugal was born and developed into an economic force, especially in the city of Porto.  My 84-year-old mother-in-law still remembers the smell of fish that filled the air near the canneries when she was young, though these were relocated years ago.  The New York Times even took a tour of a Portuguese canning facility.
Canned fish and seafood, or conservas as they are known here, never went away entirely, and have recently made a comeback as artisanal and high-end canners entered the game. Nowadays, you can’t get through any duty-free store in Portugal without passing by a section selling conservas, and there are stores catering to tourists all over Lisbon and Porto that sell or even specialize in them.  You can’t even get through Times Square without bumping into one.
Sardines are best when canned in olive oil.  Served on a slice of crusty bread, they make for nice petiscos, similar to Spanish tapas.  (But petiscos and tapas are not the same, as I explain here.) I also use canned sardines in tomato sauce to give richness to Italian-inspired pasta dishes with seafood.
Restaurants sometimes serve sardines butterflied, breaded, and fried, which can be eaten on a plate with a knife and fork, or on bread as a sandwich.  Personally, I still prefer grilled sardines to fried, but this is a solid way to taste them.  Another great way is to eat petingas, or baby sardines, that are fried and small enough to be eaten whole — head included. 

The Verdict

I tried so you don’t have to, but I hope you do! 
I understand that some of you may still have doubts, so let me wrap up by saying this.
I still remember the first time I ate grilled sardines.  It was in the US, actually, and my late husband, Nuno, took me to a seafood wholesaler, the first time I’d ever been in one.  I was gobsmacked by the quantity and variety of fish, which in retrospect must have seemed like a run-of-the-mill Portuguese grocery store to Nuno.  He suggested grilling some fish, which I was game for, and when we found sardines at the store, I was…not as game.  Still, never one to be picky, and knowing that Nuno was a fantastic cook, I decided to try them anyway.  I can now laugh at how ridiculously squeamish I was about seeing whole fish in my own home.  The shock!  The horror!  But that first bite was a come-to-Jesus moment for sure, and I’ve never looked back on Portuguese fish and seafood dishes.  Who knows, maybe it will be the same for you, too.
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