Howard Yoon is a literary agent and editorial director at the Gail Ross Literary Agency in Washington, D.C. He teaches narrative nonfiction for the Masters of Journalism program at Georgetown University.
Welcome to the latest session of food exposure therapy. You're late — most likely years late in conquering today's food phobia: anchovies. Relax and take a deep breath. By the time we're done, you'll be on your way to overcoming your fear. You might even learn to love them.
Anchovies, those scary slivers of canned fish, have a taste so pungent, so intensely fishy and salty that when served improperly, they can make the heartiest eater recoil from their punch.
However, these members of the herring family, which swim in warm waters all over the world and average 1 to 4 inches in length, have been a staple of the global diet for thousands of years. And not just any staple, but one so highly prized that it was used to make a condiment, garum, during the Roman Empire that cost as much as the finest perfumes.
Why the obsession over anchovies? Because these bright-eyed, oily fish have what scientists and food experts call "umami," an almost indescribable fifth taste that takes your eating experience beyond salty, sweet, sour and bitter. Umami can best be characterized as a "savory" taste, but a savory so satisfying that it lingers on your taste buds like the final chords of your favorite song. Your impulse is to hit replay to hear the song again, which is what we do when we reach into a bag of Doritos or twirl another strand of instant ramen into our mouths; both contain monosodium glutamate, the artificial additive that contains umami. However, umami also can be found naturally in foods such as Parmesan cheese, seaweed, truffles, meats, mushrooms and certain fish.
It's this secret fifth taste that has kept anchovies among the top tunes our taste buds have downloaded throughout the ages. It's the processing of anchovies that has given this fish its bad reputation. Because of their size and oil content, they don't transport well, though you should jump at the chance to try fresh anchovies; you'll marvel at their delicate, naturally oily flavor. Most anchovies are cured either as filets, packed in barrels or flats of salt for several months, or as a concentrated fish sauce used as a seasoning in meat and vegetable dishes. The preserved fillets, whose white flesh turns the familiar reddish-brown hue from the salting process, are packaged flat or rolled in cans, sometimes coiled around a caper, whose briny piquancy can stand up to the fish.
To make fish sauce, anchovies are packed in salt in wooden flats or earthenware jars and allowed to "autolyze" in the hot sun — a process by which the enzymes in the fish break down the tissue, liquefying the fish into a concentrated sauce. (The salt helps prevent bacterial buildup.) What you have after nine months is umami in a bottle, though the liquid is so fishy in flavor that it is not meant to be consumed on its own. I once dropped a full bottle of fish sauce in my kitchen, and after repeated scrubbing and mopping, I still could not get the fishy smell out of my house for a week.
Despite the risks in handling it, fish sauce has found its way into kitchens around the world. Romans had their coveted garum. The Indonesians have kecap ikan, which dates back to the 15th century. Koreans use aek jeot to make their national side dish, kimchi. The Filipinos have patis. The Vietnamese have nuac mom, and the Thais have nam pla, an essential ingredient in so many Thai dishes. They all usually contain anchovies.
Even the bottle of ketchup in everyone's fridge owes its existence to anchovies. "Ke-chiap," a popular fish sauce made in southern China, was exported to Europe many centuries ago. In the 19th century, tomatoes, brought over from the New World, were incorporated into the European recipes of "katchup" until over time we ended up with the modern version, sans anchovies.
There are, I believe, two reasons why we don't care for anchovies in this country: We don't achieve the right balance of anchovies in our dishes, and we don't use quality anchovies.
If you're trying to condition yourself to appreciate this fine fish, don't eat them individually as you would on a pizza. The anchovies at pizza joints are usually the cheapest available; the hot oven also concentrates their saltiness. Find a good Caesar salad or puttanesca sauce recipe that calls for a few anchovies mixed into the dish. Or make an olive tapenade that you can smear on baguette slices. You can use the cheaper anchovies for these recipes. Once you get accustomed to the subtle fish taste, seek out the more expensive anchovies, often found in a jar, not a can, at specialty food stores or Italian or Spanish markets. You'll be surprised by the difference in flavor.
Soon you'll be ready to enjoy them on their own, as I did on a recent trip to Barcelona, where I ordered anchovies smothered in golden Spanish olive oil, anchovies wrapped around olives and pickled green beans or speared with marinated artichoke hearts. The most memorable dish during my travels? Two beautiful anchovy fillets on a bed of homemade Catalan mato cheese, the consistency of ricotta, served with salt and fresh cracked pepper and drizzled with thick olive oil.
Still hung up on anchovies? Don't listen to me. Listen to history. Take a cue from food lovers around the world and learn to love this remarkable little fish.
I've used this recipe from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything (Wiley 1998) for the past 10 years. It's simple, straightforward and good. All kinds of junk passes for Caesar salad, but this is the real thing. The essentials in a great Caesar salad are garlic, egg, lemon juice, anchovies and real Parmesan. Compromise on any of these, and you'll still have a good salad, but you won't have a great Caesar.
Rub the inside of your salad bowl with the garlic clove, then discard it.
Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Pierce a tiny hole in the broad end of each of the eggs with a pin or a needle and boil them for 60 to 90 seconds. They will just begin to firm up. Crack them into the salad bowl, being sure to scoop out the white that clings to the shell.
Beat the eggs with a fork, gradually adding the lemon juice and then the olive oil, beating continuously.
Stir in the anchovies and the Worcestershire sauce. Taste and add salt if needed and plenty of pepper. Toss well with the lettuce, top with the croutons and Parmesan. Toss again at the table. Serve immediately.
Chicken, Shrimp Or Scallop Caesar Salad
Top the salad with slices of grilled or broiled boneless chicken or grilled or broiled shrimp or scallops. It makes a great lunch.
On my recent trip to Barcelona, I visited the trendy tapas bar, Inopia, run by Alberto Adria, little brother of world famous chef Ferran Adria of El Bulli. I sampled all four anchovy dishes on the menu and have tried to re-create simpler versions of three of them.
The key here is simplicity. Find the best ingredients, which means paying top dollar for good red cured anchovies. They may cost as much as $10 a bottle, but the difference is worth it. Avoid white anchovies for these recipes, as they are pickled in vinegar and resemble the taste of pickled herring.
The next time you have friends over for a beer or glass of white wine, serve these recipes with slices of crusty bread. See how daring your friends are, eating whole anchovies.
Drop a healthy tablespoonful of ricotta onto a plate or small serving bowl. Drape two anchovy fillets over the cheese.
Sprinkle with salt and cracked pepper.
Drizzle with oil.
Pasta puttanesca, or "whore's pasta," originated in the home of Italian prostitutes, who were said to have been either too busy or not permitted to shop for fresh ingredients at the market — or so the story goes. Chances are, regardless of your profession, you already have most of these ingredients in your cupboard.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 to 6 cloves garlic, minced
4 anchovy fillets, chopped in small pieces
1 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes
1 pound pasta (penne, linguine or spaghetti)
1/2 cup pitted nicoise olives, chopped
2 tablespoons capers, whole
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (more or less depending on desired spiciness)
Salt and pepper to taste
Handful fresh Italian parsley, chopped
Bring large pot of water to boil.
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium-low heat with garlic and anchovies. Stir occasionally until garlic is golden, a few minutes. Avoid overbrowning or burning garlic.
Add juice from tomatoes to the skillet, leaving the whole tomatoes in the can. Raise heat to medium, stirring for a minute or two. Using fingers (my preferred method) or an immersion blender, crush the tomatoes in the can. Add crushed tomatoes to the skillet, stirring occasionally for 7 to 8 minutes, or until the sauce thickens to desired consistency.
Throw pasta in the boiling water and cook according to directions on the package. Add capers, olives and hot pepper flakes to the skillet with the tomatoes, stirring occasionally. Cook 3 to 4 minutes until capers soften. Salt and pepper to taste.
Drain the pasta and add to the sauce with remaining olive oil and chopped parsley.