Sardine Pupu

Sardine pupu is a simple, prototypically Filipino treat: Splashes of shoyu and vinegar essentially qualify it as adobo, while a crucial glug of lemon oil on top adds complexity. My favorite part is the raw onions, which I rinse under ice water, a technique that softens their bite and brings out the sweetness. This is a primo snack, or add two scoops of rice and you've got a meal. My recipe for the lemon oil and chile pepper water can be halved or quartered if you'd like, but they have endless uses if you want to store the extra in the fridge. If the lemon oil and chile pepper water are already made, the dish comes together in about 10 minutes.

Sardine Pupu
Photo: Kevin J. Miyazaki
Active Time:
40 mins
Total Time:
40 mins


For the lemon oil

  • 4 lemons, scrubbed in hot water

  • 2 cups extra-virgin olive oil

For the chile pepper water

  • ¼ cup white vinegar

  • 4 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

  • 8 Hawaiian or 4 bird's eye chilies, half left whole, half chopped

  • 2 bay leaves

  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar

  • 1 tablespoon shoyu (soy sauce)

  • 2 teaspoons coarse Hawaiian sea salt or Diamond Crystal kosher salt

For the sardines

  • 4 (3.75- to 4.2-ounce) tins sardines in extra-virgin olive oil

  • ¼ medium sweet white onion, halved and thinly sliced (1/2 cup)

  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

  • Gochugaru (Korean chile flakes), to taste

  • 1 tablespoon shoyu (soy sauce)

  • 1 tablespoon apple-cider vinegar

  • Freshly ground black pepper


Make the lemon oil:

  1. Peel the lemon zest in long strips with a vegetable peeler, making sure to avoid the bitter white pith. (Reserve the lemon flesh and juice for another use.) Combine the zest strips and olive oil in a saucepan and simmer over very low heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. If any bubbles appear, even on the side of the pan, reduce the heat or briefly remove the pan from the heat. Let the oil cool to room temperature while the zest strips are left in to steep, about an hour. Discard the zest and transfer the lemon oil to a clean jar or sealable container. Store in a cool, dark place. The oil will keep for about 1 month on the shelf, or for several months in the fridge (just be sure to bring it up to room temperature before using).

Make the chile pepper water:

  1. In a clean heat-proof jar or sealable container, combine the hot water, white vinegar, garlic, chiles, bay leaves, cider vinegar, shoyu, salt, and fish sauce; stir to dissolve the salt. Let the chile pepper water cool to room temperature. Taste and adjust the salt if needed. Chill in the fridge for at least a day before serving. The chile pepper water keeps in the fridge indefinitely.

Make the sardines:

  1. Place the onion in a bowl and cover with cold water. Let soak until slightly translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain the onion and place on paper towels to drain.

  2. Carefully remove the sardines from the can, reserving the oil. Heat a medium skillet over medium high. Pour in the oil from sardines (or use a bit of neutral oil), add the garlic and gochugaru to taste, and sauté until lightly browned and fragrant, 30 to 60 seconds. Add the sardines in a single layer, keeping them as intact as possible. Deglaze with the shoyu and vinegar.

  3. Once the sardines are heated through, 1 to 2 minutes, transfer the sardines to a serving platter and top with the onion and 1/4 cup of the chile pepper water. Season to taste with black pepper and drizzle with 2 teaspoons of the lemon oil. Serve immediately.


Adapted with permission from Cook Real Hawai'i by Sheldon Simeon and Garrett Snyder, copyright © 2021. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Photography copyright: Kevin J. Miyazaki © 2021

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