Confession: As a child, I always assumed tuna was a little fish because it came in little cans. I never imagined the 3-footer marine creatures that they actually are. But it’s no secret that some little fish do come in cans — in this case, sardines — for there are plenty of fish in the sea (just not all are suited to be served in metal containers).
To some people, canned fish may have a bit of stigma attached to it — the can automatically denotes that the fish is not fresh. But for others, it’s a completely normal and delicious way to transport seafood, especially when you don’t live near a coast. In fact in inland Spain, canned seafood, or latillas as they are called (literally “little cans”), is very much part of the gastronomic culture in the home and in tapas bars.
In America, you can have this Spanish latilla experience by way of the Norwegian fish company King Oscar, which cans plenty of fish from the sea: anchovies, kippers and, above all, sardines, which fit right in the can when their heads are chopped off.
Hailing from the cold waters of the North Sea, King Oscar’s brisling sardines are caught and then deboned and decapitated, which sounds more gruesome than it actually is. Then they’re hand-canned with water, tomato sauce, mustard or the ever-popular extra virgin olive oil. The rectangular cans ship to your local supermarket to sit next to round cans of tuna, just waiting for someone to peel away their thin metal lids. Once the confined fish are released, they can go right into your mouth — or into any one of many recipes, including salads, sandwiches or even paella.
This all sounds pretty standard for any canned fish company, but King Oscar has tried to distinguish themselves from their competitors. After all, when there are plenty of fish in the sea, there are plenty of fishing companies in the sea, too. The Norway-based brand attempts this distinction by means of marketing, of course, and they’ve been doing it for decades. Not only do they boast the health benefits of eating fish — omega-3, calcium — but they’ve even tried to use sex appeal, particularly in a TV spot from the 1970s where a spokesmodel with Farrah Fawcett hair shows off her “good bones and nice teeth.”
But never mind about bones and teeth. The bottom line is, they’re cans of fish. How’s their taste and texture?
Final Verdict: 3.5 (out of 5) stars.
It’s hard to judge these sardines without a real basis of comparison. I’ve had other canned sardines before, and King Oscar’s isn’t so much a “king;” their sardines are more or less just as good as many others. Perhaps that’s because the olive oil taste is pretty dominant, regardless of brand — although in this particular case, it’s not overwhelming. I think that’s a good thing; you can taste actual fish amidst the richness of the oil. I also sampled the tomato sauce version, which is OK if you want your fish to taste a little sweet. Like the olive oil version, the tomato sauce (plus a few spices) isn’t overpowering and lets the fish taste come through. If you’re not into “fishy tasting” things, these are definitely not for you, unless, of course, you mask the taste with more ingredients when combining the fish in a bigger recipe.
As for the texture, King Oscar’s sardines are just as you’d want: flaky and soft, yet firm enough not to fall apart or get mushy like chunk white tuna. These are whole fish, after all — sans heads and tail fins — and they retain their natural shape. Whether or not they live up to a sexy retro claim about giving you good bones and nice teeth is all up to you — and your opinion of that Farrah Fawcett hairdo.
Erik Trinidad is the author of Fancy Fast Food: Ironic Recipes with No Bun Intended, based off his popular food humor blog, fancyfastfood.com.