Chefs are leading a tinned seafood renaissance, serving high-quality cans of sardines, mackerel, squid and shellfish—imported from around the world—like the delicacies that they are.
People are paying $20 for small cans of seafood, and, no, they haven’t fallen for a cynical marketing trick. While tinned seafood is nothing new, its celebration and resurgence in American restaurants is. Preserving fish and shellfish in oil, salt and tins has been both a necessary survival practice and delicious preparation in countries around the world for centuries, and now top American chefs are importing the very finest of these global delicacies, reinventing them in pastas, stews and roasts or serving them simply in their cans alongside some butter and bread. At the pintxos restaurant Huertas in New York, chef Jonah Miller imports tins from Portugal, Spain and Basque country, offering clams in brine and pimentón-spiced mackarel to a (sometimes reluctant) dining population that associates canned seafood with the sardines they despised in their youths.
“There's still a bit of a hurdle for some Americans to realize that great things can come in cans, but more and more of our guests are excited about tinned seafood,” said Miller. People are realizing that a canned product isn't just a less-good substitute for the fresh stuff; rather, the preservation process often enhances flavor.
“Sardines and mackerel, both considered oily and ‘fishy,’ are transformed into buttery and mild tinned snacks, served straight-up or with simple additions of lemon, herbs and radish,” said Miller. “Mollusks also benefit from the tinned-treatment. Their flavor intensifies and their chewy texture is tenderized—plus there aren’t any shells to discard.”
At Saltie Girl in Boston, owner Kathy Sidell and chef Kyle McClelland curate one of the largest tinned seafood collections in New England, importing everything from Siberian caviar to Icelandic cod liver to Spanish squid bathed in its own ink. (They also serve a damn good lobster roll, for the less adventurous, and were deemed the “Best Raw Bar in Boston” by Boston Magazine.) The concept for the restaurant, which opened in 2016, first occurred to Sidell upon visiting a restaurant in Barcelona where the garde manger was all tinned and smoked products—nothing cooked.
“Those tins knocked my socks off,” she said. “I didn’t want to open just another oyster bar—the tinned seafood brought some originality to the concept.” While they went into the venture thinking that the tins would be “window dressing” behind the oyster bar, their patrons were smitten. Now, Saltie Girl sells close to 200 cans, imported from as far as Japan and as close as Washington, every week.
Part of the appeal, McClelland speculates, is rooted in nostalgia. “Growing up in New England, my parents always used to eat canned sardines,” said McClelland. “Plus, a lot of people from Europe will come in because they can’t get this stuff anywhere else in the area.”
One of their most popular items is a sort of seafood “charcuterie” board served with piquillo pepper jam, Vermont butter, parsley, toasted French bread and an assortment of salts. Similarly beloved are their tins of fried white anchovies packed with caramelized onions, which they warm up in the oven and then torch like a casserole before serving.
“Boston is not known for the most adventurous eaters,” said Sidell. “But if you gain their trust, they’ll come back.”