Give Anchovies Another Chance Although anchovies have been a staple of the global diet for thousands of years, their reputation scares a lot of people off. Their fishy, salty pungency just takes a little care in preparation. Once you harness their "umami," you'll learn to love this remarkable little fish.

Give Anchovies Another Chance

Howard Yoon for NPR
Jars of anchovies
Howard Yoon for NPR

About The Author

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.