When it comes to great seafood, canned isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.
Despite the centuries-old history of canning seafood as a preservation method, consumers are more likely to associate canned seafood with tuna salad served at Tupperware parties or sardines eaten on a wilderness trek than with a delicious dish on the menu at a sit-down restaurant.
But a wave of chefs is serving up canned fish and shellfish, many of them straight from the can.
“Tinned fish is often thought of as something our fathers ate, but the products we’re seeing today have come a long way,” said Skip Bennett, owner and founder of Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, Mass., and The Shop, a retail store and oyster bar in Portland, Maine.
Inspired by the history of Maine’s canneries, The Shop features a selection of international tinned fish and caviar from Ramon Pena, including sardines, octopus and mussels in different preparations. For those eating in, the tinned fish is served with bread and traditional accoutrements. Everything is available to take home and there is a robust online store for faraway seafood fans.
“The combination of savory and salt make for an experience comparable to eating a cheese and charcuterie board,” Bennett said. “It’s a really fun, communal way to share, pass and taste a variety of things with a crisp beer or glass of wine.”
At Cúrate, a Spanish tapas bar in Asheville, N.C., chef Katie Button serves a number of latas, or premium Spanish tinned products.
“In Spain, tinned seafood is a longstanding, prized tradition,” she said. “We just couldn't have a Spanish tapas bar without it.”
Button’s menu features a variety preparations of tinned seafood products, including anchovies, berberechos (cockles), mejillones en escabeche (pickled mussels), bonito del norte (a type of tuna) packed in olive oil, and sardines.
“Chefs love tinned seafood,” she said. “We love anything that is prepared with care, and we love the ability to find the artisan making the very best of something.”
Button serves the berberechos and mejillones en escabeche as they are served in vermouth bars in Spain — straight from the can — topped with housemade salsa de vermut (a smoky sauce with vinegar and black pepper) and served with a side of potato chips.
“Customers are also opening up to the idea, being willing to change their preconceived notions about canned foods and being open to learning about the tradition and tasting these delicacies,” Button said. “That is what makes it fun for chefs to play around with.”
Gerard Craft’s Sardella (“sardine” in Italian) in St. Louis serves sardine toast made with local bread, spinach, baccalà and chermoula, a Moroccan herb sauce.
“You can get really great quality imports now of canned seafood from Spain and Italy, so chefs are embracing that to be incorporated on the menu,” Craft said. “It’s fast, easy and delicious.”
Canned seafood is also a focal point of Sardella’s décor, which includes a feature wall of colorful sardine tins. At the end of the meal, the check is presented in a sardine tin with a few Swedish Fish candies.
At Saltie Girl Seafood Bar in Boston, owner Kathy Sidell and chef Kyle McClelland claim to curate “one of the largest tinned seafood collections in New England.” The expansive selection of domestic and imported tinned fish, often served with bread and house-churned sea salt butter, includes traditional anchovies in oil and sardines in tomato sauce, as well as more adventurous items like Spanish squid soaked in its own ink.
Mario Hernandez, chef-partner at Lamano, a Spanish tapas and wine bar in New York City, loves the centuries-old history and tradition behind canned fish and the tin that comes with eating it. Currently his menu includes mejillones (mussels escabeche, muscatel and pimento) and navajas (razor clams in olive oil with bay leaves and dried aragon olives) served in the can.
“Customers love ordering canned navajas or chipirones (baby squid or cuttlefish) or mussels,” Hernandez said. “It’s a convenient way of having a flavorful tapa, snack or even a meal if you treat them with love and respect.”