For many middle-class and upper-class Filipinos, tinned sardines are something you buy in bulk – not so much for home consumption, but more for donation drives either at school, at church, or for some civic organisation or other. Many people in either socio-economic bracket are of the opinion that sardines in those common-looking cylindrical tins were poor people’s food – certainly not to be eaten by people who fancied themselves as “top-drawer/living room lace” sorts. Personally, I think they’re just picky, finicky, and hate food – period.
Growing up as a middle-class Filipina, I found myself in the minority: I was a person who happily ate tinned sardines on a regular basis. During Lent, tinned sardines in tomato sauce would be sautéed with red onions and garlic and sotanghon (mung bean vermicelli) would be thrown into the sauce; it was what we had for Friday dinners as an alternative to fried fish or a fish-head sinigang. Sautéed sardines sans the sotanghon would be served over plain white rice for breakfast, along side fried eggs with decadently runny yolks.
As I grew older, my father – a great fan of sardines, himself – introduced my palate to other varieties of our favourite preserved fish. Bottled sardines – usually prepared Spanish-style, which is to say soaked in olive oil with whole black peppercorns, salt, and either or both pickled olives and chilies – appear regularly on the family grocery list, a healthier source of protein (and a tasty one, to boot) when one felt all tuckered-out with meat and poultry. There would also be the Portuguese sardines that came in flat, rectangular tins you opened with a wire key; piquant, savoury fish that were magnificent when eaten with hot pan de sal, fresh out of the neighbourhood baker’s oven.
And there are the gifts of homemade Spanish-style sardines we have received from friends throughout the years: pressure-cooked fish – so soft that you could eat them bones and all – in olive oil with equally homespun pickles, eaten simply over hot, white rice. It’s a meal, as shown above, that helps squeeze out the stresses of the day, so soothing to the belly and comforting for the soul.
A more recent addition to my stash of fishy favourites is fried sardines. These are, essentially, pre-fried sardines that are braised in savoury sauces prior to canning, It’s a totally different spin from the usual “poach and braise” approach to canning sardines and makes quite an impact on both taste and texture. Fried sardines have more of a chew to them as opposed to the crumble-on-impact tenderness of regular sardines. As such, the cooking method also allows the use of richer, more robust-flavoured sauces. The 555 line features a hot-and-spicy variant together with bistek (soy, calamansi lime, and caramelised onion), escabeche (Oriental-style sweet and sour sauce), and – my personal favourite – tausi (oil, onions, and fermented black beans).
The tausi variant is a local spin on a popular Chinese product called dou chi ling yu or freshwater carp (dace) cooked with fermented black beans. It is an intensely umami affair that beautifully plays off the strong flavours of the fried fish with the pungent, salty taste of the fermented beans. Both tausi-fried sardines and tinned dace share that rustic deliciousness that prompted Chinese food writer Lilian Chou to write these glowing words of praise:
“When I open a can to eat with white rice, I inhale every last morsel, right down to the oil at the bottom, which I drizzle over the top. One tin transforms a bowl of plain grains into the most satisfying and flavoursome of meals.”
As with other kinds of tinned sardines, you can eat fried sardines right out of the can. Personally, though, I prefer to drain a little of the oil into a pre-heated frying pan. I’d frizzle in some sliced onion just till the individual strands are soft and pliable; minced garlic follows in, cooked till just beginning to turn golden at the edges. Throw in the sardines and any remaining liquid from the tin – oils and all – and heat through. Lump the deeply-fragrant mess onto a bowl of hot rice; take a moment to savour the pungent steam that wafts off of it and dig right in.
If anyone tells you that you’re a Philistine for enjoying such a plebeian meal, just shrug, turn your nose up at them, and enjoy your meal even more. They’re the uncultured Philistines with their unadventurous appetites; you, on the other hand, have a better sense of what is divinely delicious.