Skinny Daily Post


I don’t know why, but we just didn’t grow up eating sardines or herring. Maybe one or the other of my parents had too many when they were little, a bad experience, I really couldn’t say, but sardines and anchovies and herring never made it to our table, into our picnic baskets.

In the past few years, as I read nutrition book after nutrition book, reading dieticians and doctors, it’s clear it’s time for me to experiment with these foods, recommended over and over again by people from every corner of the medical and nutritional communities. These people don’t agree on much, but when I find them all promoting a food I’m not eating, a behavior I’m not trying, I have to at least try. I promised myself I would.

I can no longer ignore their advice about little fishes. Why? These foods are loaded with Omega 3 fatty acids, calcium, and protein. They’re the cheapest open water fish you can get your hands on, and while they are still stocked in convenience food stores, they count as one of the healthiest “fast foods” you can hope to find on the open road, running between meetings. Read the labels on the cans, and you see they are also one of the few ready-to-eat proteins that are not loaded with the sorts of preservatives a delicate flower like me can’t tolerate.

So, I’ll start with a can of sardines. I have never even looked inside a can of sardines. I have never studied cans of sardines on the shelves of my supermarket, but skim right over this whole canned meat section of the store. Today I paid attention and found… mind numbing choices. I can choose sardines packed in olive oil, fish oil, salsa, mustard. There are several brands and options. I do what I usually do, and opt for the most impressive packaging and brand name. King Oscar of Norway graces the neat red package I choose. He’s got an expression that embraces both awe and pain. He has epaulets. These are two good reasons to eat his sardines. Another is the copy on the back of the package:

“King Oscar Brisling, the world’s smallest, most delicate sardines, are taken from the pure, icy fjords of Norway. They are then lightly smoked in oak wood ovens and hand-packed in a variety of natural oils, spring water and flavorful sauces.”

Pure icy fjords? Oak wood ovens? Hand-packed? Natural oils? I’m transfixed by a country, a people, a water body I’ve never seen or met or imagined. These sardines must be good. They have to be. How could a package carry copy like this, if it were not true? The Norweigans I know are not terribly ironic. Not known for irony, bless them. However, they do eat lutefisk. I need to temper my expectations against this people’s idea of a seafood delicacy. The ingredient list: sardines, olive oil, salt. This is straightforward. I understand the ingredient list. That is good.

Okay, I can see this package meets my every need. It grabs my imagination and satisfies my concern over scary food processing. Now, all I have to do is pay my $2.25, and then, eat up.

And there it is. I must summon the courage to open the can, and put something new, a new animal, into my mouth. I am a fairly adventurous eater, so I can’t explain why this feels so difficult for me. I have asked around: What are sardines like? What do they taste like? How do they feel in your mouth? Are there bones? Is the head there? Do you eat the bones? And I get remarkably little information from long-time sardine eaters. “They’re pretty fishy,” people say.

Fishy? They’re fish. Why wouldn’t they be fishy? This is non-information.

When I don’t have a clue what to do or what to expect, I run to the Internet. Google rarely lets me down. Rarely. Almost never. But in this case, I’m afraid, there is little to be had on how to eat sardines. Clearly no one thinks it’s important to explain how to eat sardines. Who doesn’t know how to eat sardines?

It turns out I am the only one. I remove the outer package and see this groovy flat can. I open it, and I swear to you, I gasped. I couldn’t help it. I cooed.

I’ve seen images of cans of sardines, enough to know that I will find lots of little fishes packed in like… like sardines. What I don’t expect is how pretty these little fish are.

They’re beautiful, bright silver fishes. They look precious, like jewelry. Like coin. No heads, but the tails are there. They’ve been gutted. I can’t tell if the bones are in them or not. Man, they’re so pretty. They smell like tuna, and are bathed in olive oil. They remind me very much of the minnows I used to catch for fishing bait in the Michigan lake where I grew up. These sardines are minnows without their heads, bright, bright silver. There must be 20 or so. I check the can. One little can is one serving. 150 calories. I’m hungry. Okay. A fork. I choose a small fork. Somehow I want to eat these straight out of the can using a special little escargot fork that belonged to my grandmother. It seems the right thing to do. I can’t imagine mushing or breaking up these little silver baubles in any way.

I select one out of the can, let the oil drip off. It’s very tender. Never one to mince with tasting food, I pop the whole thing in my mouth. It’s very soft. I can’t detect bones, can’t even detect the tail I know is there. It’s less intense a flavor than tuna, not nearly so salty. A nice oily fish flavor. Not nearly so strong as the low tide in Maine smells. Not nearly as mild as a hunk of haddock. Only slightly stronger than salmon, frankly. It’s the smallness of the nearly whole fish in my mouth that takes me a minute to get over. All I can think of is those minnows I used to catch in my hands from my minnow net as a young girl. I expect these little fish to wriggle.

They never do.

I ate the whole can. Happily. Where have these sardines been all my life? A new food is a rare thing for me. A new food so readily available at even the meanest of food shops is a real bonus. A food I can sneak into back packs and purses as an emergency backup ration for when I haven’t planned my food well for the day is a find. A can of sardines is the perfect thing. The perfect number of calories, the perfect food.

And now, on to the herring. An even cuter can. Wish me luck. cooks with sardines
King Oscar Sardines reads sardines

29 thoughts on “Fish In a Can?

  1. Ali says:

    You are so much braver than me! My husband and son eat little fish all the time. I can’t bear them, though. He puts lemon on them and eats them with italian bread. You can tell when he’s eating them; the cats start howling (they get the can).

  2. Brenda says:

    I used to eat sardines all the time when I was little! Somehow I never remember to pick them up when I’m shopping these days, though. I need to put them down on my list!!

  3. Juju says:

    My cat doesn’t resond to fish. Isn’t that strange? The dogs do, but not the cat, who only loves me when I’m fiddling with dairy products. Actually, I dated a guy once who pretty much only responded to dairy products. But that’s another story for another day…

    Didn’t go for the herring. It wasn’t terrible, but I didn’t flat enjoy them as I did the Sardines, though I really tried. I may not actually be a Viking after all. Rats.

  4. FlameGirl says:

    I. Am. Such. A. Chicken.

  5. mette says:

    Heh. I’m a Norwegian reader, and thought this entry was really funny! "Pure icy fjords?" Is that where they come from? See, I didn’t know that! 🙂
    But I *do* eat sardines! And my favorite way of eating them is with bread and boiled eggs (sardines on top!).

  6. JuJu says:

    Oh please don’t tell me that the package lied about the pure icy fjords! Or are you saying there are no pure icy fjords? Either way, I don’t want my dreams shattered. But I’m sure some day I’ll try the lutefisk. I fear it’ll happen in North Dakota rather than Norway. Does that still count?

  7. mette says:

    Oh no! I’m sure the package didn’t lie about the “pure icy fjords”! I just had no idea that’s where the sardines came from! Really! (what are they doing in the fjords? do they live there?)
    Also – I think it’s the whole concept of using the fjords in marketing stuff that’s very cliché for us Norwegians, but you know; sometimes it’s valid!

    And the lutefisk? I recommend you to try it (I can’t speak for the North Dakota lutefisk though!), but you probably shouldn’t expect too much! It’s no sardine!

  8. Juju says:

    I promise I will try. A former editor/boss of mine traveled home to North Dakota every winter to taste the stuff. I’ve been intrigued ever since. But also very afraid.


  9. Monica says:

    what a delightful article! I loved reading it and am so happy that you reminded me of sardines. My father loved them and we would share a snack of sardines and crackers sometimes. Thanks for the memories.

  10. ria says:

    Loved the article. Enjoyed reading it! I’ll be honest, I love fish in general. Up until about 2yrs ago, I could not stand the thought of eating a sardine. My husband was the one who feasted on them. Being that he is a chef, has been the cook in our home for 26 yrs, and knows his food, he talked me into trying one. Finally, I gave in. WHAT A SHOCK!!!! I just loved them!!!!
    Now, for the past 2 yrs, I have been eating them almost on a daily basis, are you ready??? for breakfast!!! Yup! And my favorite way to eat them is to mash them up like you would tuna w/mayo, and put it on a plate with one boiled egg, and eat them with my Torrell’s tortilias.
    I love it!!!

  11. Dominic says:

    Thank you for this article! I have been looking around for a healthy, convenient, high-protein food and the other day, while I was shopping, I thought I’d pick up a can of sardines to try them out. Problem: I’d never eaten them before and wondered how to go about it, so I went to Google and looked up ‘sardines “how to eat”‘ and got your article. Now I know, and I know what I’m going to have for lunch – thanks for the tips!

  12. CJ says:

    This is too funny. I was sitting here at work holding a can of sardines that I bought last night and I realized I didn’t know how to eat them. So I googled “how to eat sardines” and found this article.

    Unfortunately, I still don’t know how to eat them. Mine are from Maine and are apparently much larger than the Norway variety as there are only 4 in the can. They also have bones. I’m thinking the little bones are edible, but I don’t think I want to eat the spine.

  13. davie says:

    Thanks so much for the story! I just bought two cans of sardines and a can of kipper snacks from my grocery totally out of curiosity because I’ve never eaten a sardine before and wanted to try them.

    I, too, had no clue as to how to eat them or what to expect. I found your report after my third Yahoo search failed to give me any idea of how to eat these little delicacies.

    So, a big thank you. And… yum!!!

  14. cgoode says:

    .. as you can see .. you’ve provided a real service here ..

    I was placing a grocery order on, and .. um .. I can’t remember how it came up, but at some point in my shopping I was confronted by the image of a tin of King Oscar sardines. I thought “what the hell” .. I like herring .. I like fish. Not to mention .. should anyone really go from birth to death without trying one of these things just once? I mean .. I grew up on Tom & Jerry fergodsakes.

    So I ordered them .. they arrived .. and even as I type this in my home office high above the streets of downtown Chicago .. they sit on my desk .. next to my computer .. mocking me ..

    I had no idea how to eat these things either. The prospect of beheading and then attempting to somehow de-skin, de-scale, de-gut .. or worst of all DE-BONE such a teensyweensy little thing was daunting.

    Took me two days to find this article, but it was exactly what I was looking for ..

    .. but I think I’ll skip the tails .. call me a chicken .. and call “Pepper the Luckiest Cat in the World” a new sardine-tail-conniseur ..

    .. anyway .. thanks again ..

  15. guidedbyvoices says:

    Great article Juju – love your writing style! But come on, guys, what do you mean you “don’t know how to eat sardines?” I ventured ’em pre-Google…wasn’t sure, either, but after I opened the can it seemed pretty self-explanatory! I prefer Juju’s purist approach: I have ’em for breakfast & eat ’em from the can, with a little fork (my baby fork, as it happens)…sometimes I’ll drain ’em on a paper towel if I want less oil. But ria’s combo of eggs & sardines sounds tasty. And CJ, don’t worry about the bones/spine…they add a bit of crunch, and lots of calcium!

  16. maria says:

    I have been curious for sooooo long as to the health and nutrition of sardines, mixed w/mayo and eaten as a dip with tortillia chips made from corn, eaten on a daily basis.
    I am extremely overweight and have an obsession with food, Please, I love fish, and salads and vegetables so why I am overweight is unbeknown to me. I am not a candy/cookie/cake eater…a muffin now and then or ice cream at night, but I love fresh foods, greens, and fruits.

  17. Leann says:

    Thanks for the great article. I have been on a “new food” kick lately and decided to try sardines, only to have to them sit on my counter because I found I wasn’t sure how to eat them. Like you I run to the internet for everything. I typed in “how do you eat sardines”, and laughed hysterically when the link to your post came up with “who doesn’t know how to eat sardines” highlighted in the description. Loved your post and now I will try them bravely, thanks! 🙂

  18. Sardinia says:

    Howdy, coming from a different culture where eating fish is the norm, much like pa-ta-toes in America, popping a sardine seemed fairly obvious. However, after reading these comments, I smiled amusedly at the novelty of sardines to some folks. Sardines are great. Some are big, some are small. I go on and off periods of eating the spine or pulling them out. And yes, they are a lovely fish. Try the sardines in tomato sauce straight from the can. It really fills me up and counters my craving for a greasy burger. I probably take a huge hit in cholesterol, but there are worse foods to get that from. Oh yes, sardines and a bowl of rice go hand in hand, esp. with tomato-sauced, packed ones. Now here’s my ignorance: I’ve never tried sardines and bread, nor sardines and scrambled eggs in the morning. They sound great. I might just venture over the pond and try some kipper as well. I might even just open a can of sardines and work and gross out my office! Gosh I just finished a can of sardines while reading the great story and wonderful replies. Hmmm… time to open ‘nother can of whoop-ass.

  19. K says:

    I had the exact same experience today, and for the same reasons, with the same anxieties. Please know that in my similarly-motivated Google search I was led to your blog, and it helped me more than I had expected. I’m off to open the can!

  20. storyb says:

    Lovely! I googled…I found…I read…I know and understand…I now feel brave enough to try. Thank you!

  21. Mike says:

    Found you by google, on the first page. This is exactly what I was looking for — a first person account of trying them out, which is exactly what I am about to do. I have never eaten sardines before, but figured I might give it a shot (anchovies are next!) and all the guides I found only talked about recipes, woefully not answering my questions of whether they eyes and bones were there. You have saved me!

  22. Charlotte says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who didn’t know much about sardines (My mother was forced to eat too many when she was a child and now doesn’t like fish very much, meaning I’ve had little experience with fish in general). I’ve been told by my doctor that I need more calcium and read that sardines with bones are a pretty good source but I wasnt sure if tinned saridnes would have bones in them, but ths page answered my questions.

    Now if only my local store wasn’t having trouble with it’s automatic doors and could open so I could buy some…

  23. Crispy's Dad says:

    I’m not a big fan of “fishy” although I like tuna. In fact, it is only recently that I had salmon for the first time. Now, thanks to your article, I’m going to give sardines a try. BTW – really enjoy your writing style.

  24. Jennifer says:

    I also googled “how to eat sardines” and I came to your site. I have two cans taunting me in the kitchen. Like you, I am afraid to open them. I don’t know what to expect. Reading your tutorial has given me courage. I bet that I’ll be a sardine toting gal too very, very soon!

  25. mike says:

    TOO FUNNY! I thought I was the only person on Earth who would Google “How to eat sardines.” I still don’t know about the spine…it creeps me out a little.

  26. Maureen says:


    First of all, i loved your writing style. You are very talented. Also, I admire your courage. With all the diet/nutrition talk about Omega 3’s, I have decided that I want to try sardines. My father use to eat them when I was small, and I would just watch him eat them; it was quite a ritual.

    What you can find on Google never ceases to amaze me. I did not think, however, that I would find such an extraordinary article on the rudiments of sardine eating!

    Many, many thanks. You have given me courage to try them! By the way, I do not believe they are very high in cholesterol.

  27. Hj says:

    Kitten and I had our first sardine last night. I laughed all the way through your writing because it was just how it was with us (well, maybe not with Kitten; I opened the can and her fish-sensors went off), especially because they ARE just so beautiful little fishies. love, Hj

  28. Migraineur says:

    Beautiful post! My mother tells me I begged her for sardines as a little kid; I don’t remember it. I didn’t rediscover them until my 30s.

    Some brands are better than others – I’ve got several cans of one brand at home that I save for kitty treats, because they are so disgustingly fishy. (Unfortunately, I don’t have the can in front of me, so I can’t tell your readers what to avoid. I think they’re in a blue-green box.) In fact, they put me off sardines for a while. I think I’ll try another brand.

    Anything that’s good with tuna would be good with sardines – maybe capers, red onion, lemon, and a little mayo.

    For your readers who are looking for the calcium boost – read the label. Not all sardines are packed with the bones, and without the bones, no calcium. The bones are pretty tiny and a little crunchy; the texture is almost like crunching on a coarse salt crystal.

    They’re very good for pregnant women, too – all the benefits of omega 3, and they don’t concentrate mercury.

  29. MarkMc says:

    Unfortunately, King Oscar was bought by Bumble Bee and the lovely sardines you describe (they WERE the best!) no longer exist. They have been replaced by large and coarse sardines…not the small and tender brislings we all loved. Another perfect product screwed up by a greedy American company. So sad.

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