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Anchovy power! Those yucky little fish could save your life

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An anchovy pizza, fresh out of the oven at John's Pizzeria near Times Square in Manhattan. (Elizabeth McGarr)

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Fresh anchovies, known as boquerones, prepared with garlic, parsley and olive oil at Despana, a store in SoHo that sells food imported from Spain. (Elizabeth McGarr)

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Cured anchovies are often rolled and stuffed with capers. (Elizabeth McGarr)

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shaped Zach Podolsky’s perception of anchovies.

“They were famous for loving pizzas and hating anchovies,” Podolsky, a 24-year-old financial analyst at Goldman Sachs, said of the cartoon heroes. “It was almost cool to hate anchovies, but then I tried them, and I loved them.”

The little fish kids and many grown-ups love to hate, the one commonly used to add salty pizzazz to sauces, dressings or a pizza may in fact be worth learning to love. Anchovies are not only exceptionally rich in omega-3 fatty acids (good for the cardiovascular system), they're also environmentally friendly.

“We call them one of our ‘super fish,’” said Tim Fitzgerald, 27, a marine scientist for the nonprofit organization Environmental Defense. “Anchovies are a type of fish that are generally resilient to fishing pressure, and they’re caught in a fairly responsible way" without disturbing habitats at the bottom of the ocean or catching other fish unintentionally.

Just a handful of anchovies yield as much omega-3 fatty acid as a 6-ounce piece of salmon.

Some 31 billion pounds of anchovies were caught around the world in 2004, more than half of that off the coast of Peru. As aqua-farming, or raising fish in a controlled area, has become more common over the last 20 years, Fitzgerald said, a good portion of the anchovies that are caught are processed into fish meal and fed to carnivorous fish, especially salmon and shrimp. So if salmon and shrimp are dining on anchovies, why aren’t we?

“They’re little and slimy and they stink,” said Shawn Smith, 28, who has worked at Frank & Angie’s pizzeria in Austin, Texas, for nearly three years. Smith said customers very rarely ordered anchovies atop their pizzas.

Cynthanne Duryea, 43, a registered dietitian at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, said she had never eaten an anchovy in her life. “Nor do I care to.”

The oiliness and the salty flavor of cured anchovies--they are typically packed between layers of salt for four to six months before being packaged into tins--is often what repels people. It’s also what makes them so appealing to chefs.

Roberto Passon remembers his father making him eat anchovies as a child in Udine, Italy. “When I was 6, I thought, ‘You’re going to kill me with this,’” he said. But Passon started “getting along with anchovies” when he became a chef in 1999.

“You make a statement whenever you use anchovies,” said Passon, 37, sitting at Scarlatto, one of the three Manhattan restaurants where he is executive chef. “You have to know how to use them.”

Passon uses anchovies in Caesar salad dressing, in preparations for other fish and in pasta sauces, especially pasta puttanesca, which also has capers, black olives, garlic, tomatoes and crushed red peppers.

Not all anchovies have that sharp, salty taste. Despana, a retail store in New York City, imports fresh anchovies from Barcelona, Spain. The white anchovies, known as boquerones, are packaged in a vacuumed, plastic container with olive oil and vinegar--not salt.

“They can be used for so many things,” said Alexander Velez, 41, a manager at the SoHo store. “You can serve them cold with vinaigrette sauce or on toasted bread with aioli.”

Despana serves boquerones with garlic, parsley and olive oil. “Simple, but tasty,” said Dolores Suarez, a 35-year-old native of Madrid who works there.

Boquerones stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to a month after they are opened, Velez said, but cured anchovies, which are packaged in tins similar to sardines, don’t last as long.

Said Elgaiair, the manager at one of the 10 Famous Original Ray’s Pizza restaurants in New York, orders one 28-ounce can of anchovies a week to cater to the customers who order them as a topping. “We have to put [the leftovers] in the garbage,” he said.

That’s exactly where many unadventurous Americans might say anchovies belong. Nearly 30 years ago, Maureen Bogosian held a contest to see who could come up with the most creative name for her new restaurant in Hanover, N.H. The winning entry? “Everything But Anchovies,” or EBAs (pronounced ee-buzz), the name of the winning contestant’s favorite pizza topping order.

“If you don’t like anchovies, don’t get a pizza with [half] anchovies and split it with a friend,” said Rick Mancini, a manager at John’s Pizzeria in New York, explaining that the anchovy taste tends to spread throughout the pizza after the oil from the anchovies mixes with the cheese as it melts. “But people who like ’em, love ’em.”

E-mail: enm2107@columbia.edu