Some of the smallest creatures in the sea are also among the tastiest. Often thought of as one and the same, anchovies and sardines actually come from two different families. But they do share some traits -- both are small, silvery fish that are available fresh, preserved, and canned.
Anchovies play a vital role in the kitchen. The humble fish sneaks into many sauces and salad dressings, from the ever-popular Caesar salad to the pungent puttanesca. An 18th century ketchup recipe lists anchovies as a main ingredient and they are still a necessary component in Worcestershire sauce.
The "true" anchovy, Engraulis encrasicholus, comes from the Mediterranean and southern European coasts, where it flourishes in the warm waters. Before refrigeration and canning were available, anchovies were preserved in brine or oil, or by smoking, air-drying, or salting. Today, preserved anchovies can be readily found whole or filleted, salt-cured, or tinned in oil. Sometimes they are rolled with capers or olives. Popularized by the ancient Romans, particularly in garum -- a potent fermented fish sauce -- anchovies from southern Europe now appear in everything from antipasti and pasta to vegetables and entrees.
The Spanish, Portuguese, and French are also fond of anchovies. Those found in Collioure in southern France are considered among the world's best. Although not as highly-prized, anchovies found in the warm waters surrounding Southeast Asia contribute to one of that region's most distinctive products -- the fish sauce known as nuoc-nam or nam-pla.
Fresh anchovies, though more difficult to procure in the United States, are also popular. In Naples, they are marinated with vinegar, olive oil, garlic, parsley, and other herbs for antipasto. The Turks are also fond of fresh anchovies, which they call hamsi, and incorporate in many dishes, including soups and breads.
Sardines, found worldwide, refer to numerous varieties of small fish that travel in large schools -- such as young pilchard, herring, or sprat. These silvery fish get their name from the island of Sardinia, where they were first canned in the early 1800s. Today, sardines are salted and smoked or canned -- usually with oil but also with water, or a mustard or tomato sauce.
There are more than 20 species of sardines, but one of the more popular -- the light-textured brisling -- comes from the cold waters of Norway. Sardines from Morocco and Portugal have a meatier texture and larger size. Sardines from Thailand are canned with chili-tomato sauces. Fresh sardines are available in the summer months. Their firm, fatty flesh makes them excellent candidates for deep-frying, grilling, or broiling.
Both anchovies and sardines are rich in nutrients. They contain calcium, protein, iron, potassium, riboflavin, vitamins D and B-12, as well as heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. However, the preserved varieties are also high in sodium because they are salt-cured.
Anchovies can be stored by keeping them submerged in olive oil. Refrigerated, they keep 2 months. Opened cans of sardines can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks. Anchovies and sardines are packed for foodservice in tins and jars ranging from 2-8 oz. and are often available packed by the case.