If you've encountered anchovies on your Caesar salad or pizza, you might wonder what kind of fish it is. Anchovies are a small, shiny, silver/green fish of the Engraulis (Mediterranean and European) or Anchoa (North America) family. It is a saltwater forage fish. Anchovies are native to the Mediterranean and Black Sea and thus very popular in the local cuisine. Similar to herring, anchovies run in large schools.
They eat plankton and newly hatched fish. Anchovies are, in turn, eaten by other fish, including halibut, shark, and salmon, as well as birds and marine mammals. Fishermen can use them as bait fish. They are found in temperate waters rather than cold or very warm seas. They school in brackish areas such as bays and estuaries where a river meets the sea.
The biggest sources of anchovies are the Peruvian anchovy fishery, which dominates with over 68 percent of the catch. The Japanese anchovy fishery is second at over 19 percent, and the European fishery third at over 8 percent.
Anchovies vs. Sardines
Because they are small, generally 5 to 8 inches in length, anchovies are often confused with sardines (Sardinella anchovia). In some areas, the terms anchovy and sardine are used interchangeably. Anchovies are slimmer and smaller than sardines. Anchovies have a more intense flavor than sardines, so they are often used in small amounts, while sardines are often eaten whole.
Both are oily fishes. Sardines are higher in omega-3 fatty acids than anchovies but both are good sources of beneficial fatty acids. Due to their small size, they are lower in mercury than larger fish. However, anchovies are a source of amnesic shellfish poisoning in humans and birds when they feed during algal blooms and concentrate domoic acid in their guts.
Uses of Anchovies in Cuisine
The minuscule scales on anchovies are virtually non-existent and the skin is perfectly edible. Anchovy fillets are produced simply by gutting and brining them and then packing them in oil or salt. Anchovy paste is also produced to use as an ingredient. Spanish boquerones are pickled in vinegar, which makes them milder.
Anchovies are notable in the culinary history of salt and condiments that provide umami, the savory "fifth taste" that adds depth and deliciousness to dishes. They are the base of the Roman fermented fish sauce, garum. Today, many sauces use anchovies to provide umami, including Worcestershire sauce, remoulade sauce, and fish sauces such as Vietnamese nuac mom and Thai nam pla.
Many people instantly disdain any recipe made with anchovies, immediately thinking of pizza or perhaps antipasto salad. This is often due to the use of the least expensive, most strongly flavored and salted anchovies. A little goes a long way. Using boquerones or fresh anchovies, tapas in Barcelona are a delight.
Many recipes use anchovies for a punch of flavor where the anchovies are neither recognizable visually nor by the taste buds. Anchovies are often that secret ingredient that you just can't put your finger on, the one that really makes the recipe pop.