Anchovies might well be called the Rodney Dangerfield of fish: they get no respect. This fish has been used in more jokes than a rubber chicken, but in reality its history dates back thousands of years and has influenced diets from the Mediterranean to the Asia and back again. Why? Because it has that elusive “fifth element” gourmands call “umami” a sensory sensation that goes beyond sweet, salty, sour and bitter. It can add such character to a dish as to make it as satisfying as a hug from an old friend, and that’s because the anchovy contains glutamic and inosinic acid, two molecules credited with giving us the “savory” sensation on our palate.
Anchovies are a forage fish, found the world over in warm waters. They feed on freshly hatched fish and plankton, and can even be found in the Monterey Bay. Anchovies get their bad rap from poor processing by food packagers, not due the fish itself. A fully mature anchovy is no more than four inches long and has some very sharp teeth, top and bottom. A member of the herring family, it’s a staple in many diets thanks to the umami flavor it imbues into other dishes. Anchovies are naturally oily and salty, which helps explain why people who have tasted a poorly processed anchovy would no more want to eat another one than to buy Tiny Tim’s latest CD.
Anchovies are processed in different ways, but they’re either cured as filets or turned into fish sauce, the latter involving being packed in salt in wooden crates, left in the sun until the enzymes in the fish turn it into a highly concentrated liquid some call “umami in a bottle.” A number of well-known dishes and condiments can thank anchovies for what they are today, among them Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, (originally a fish sauce from South China that was blended with tomatoes from the New World) Kim chi, and Caesar salad dressing. Talk about the Little Fish that could!
The best quality anchovies generally are found in a glass jar, and that’s the first step you take towards discovering the culinary delights an anchovy can deliver. Many experience the anchovy for the first time in a Caesar salad or even mixed into an olive tapenade. The next plateau on your culinary ascent might be to use put them on a salty cracker with a fine olive oil drizzled over it.
Besides being tasty, the humble anchovy gets high marks for health as it contains high amounts of omega 3 acids, and are considered a fish that contains some of the lowest levels of mercury.
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