Canned sardines are the Southeast Asian equivalent of canned tuna. It’s a great convenience food that many people enjoy, even crave! I keep at least one can of Ligo sardines in tomato sauce to eat with rice or toast, or to make the filling for sardine puffs (karipap sardin). I also stuff the sardines in banh mi.
Ligo is one of the prevailing brand sold at Asian markets. The cans are the size of small tomato paste cans. There’s enough for a generous single portion, making it perfect for lunch. Here is what it looks like:
But I never thought of making my own until the other day, when I was staring down at freshly caught sardines at the market. I live on the Monterey Bay in California and periodically local markets such as Staff of Life health food store and Whole Foods carry them. Sardines were over-fished in the bay (remember Cannery Row?) but that doesn’t mean that they are no longer around.
I selected the biggest ones and had the fishmonger clean and gut them. If cutting the heads off is not your thing, have the fishmonger do the deed. You won’t have to gaze into the plaintive fish eyes.
Once home, I looked through a few cookbooks and patched together this recipe. It is very simple to prepare and improves by sitting overnight. That’s the magic of these kinds of simmered dishes, which are technically called “kho” in Vietnamese. You often times simmer foods in fish sauce and caramel sauce for claypot catfish (ca kho), etc. but the technique also denotes a means to preserve and imbue ingredients with flavor. The idea is that you have a bit of precious protein – most often oily, rich tasting fish – and you cook them with robust seasonings such so that they’ll keep well days. Kho foods were great for periods when there was little refrigeration.
Refrigeration is not a major issue for many Vietnamese cooks today. Nevertheless, I ended up eating these sardines over the course of a week, while finishing up my tofu manuscript. It was a nice treat and the sardines kind of improved over time.
I made sardine banh mi several times. The set up is just like for a regular banh mi sandwich. The mayo and Maggi Seasoning Sauce complemented the fish well. There was no need for jalapeno as the chile heat in he tomato sauce was just enough. And, when I was low on bread, the banh mi became a sardine crostini! See my notes below for details.
Would I give up my canned sardines? No. However, the sardines in tomato sauce had terrific flavor, much brighter than the purchased variety that comes from the Philippines. Plus, I used local ingredients. Why rely on a product that comes from across the Pacific Ocean when the ingredients are readily available nearby?
If you’re a canned sardine lover, how do you like to eat them?
Sardines Simmered in Spicy Tomato Sauce
Ca Sardine Kho Ca Chua
I bought large sardines and the bones were not chewable. Remove them as best you can before eating. Or, simmer small fish.
Serves 4 to 6
4 large sardines (1 pound total), gutted and cleaned
1 tablespoon oil
1/3 to 1/2 cup chopped yellow onion or shallot
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can whole peeled tomatoes (1 1/2 cups with juice) canned peeled tomato
1 or 2 Thai or Serrano chile, split lengthwise
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon light brown sugar or light palm sugar
1. Chop the heads off the fish. Then use scissors and/or a knife to remove the fins. Cut each fish into 2 1/2 to 3 inch sections. Rinse the fish well, making sure the belly is clean. Pat dry and set aside.
2. Heat the oil over medium heat in a low saucepan. Add the onion and cook, stirring, for 4 to 5 minutes until soft and fragrant. Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds until aromatic.
Add the tomato, chile, fish sauce, pinch of salt, and the sugar. Taste and tweak the flavors for balance of tart, salty, and sweet. Bring to a vigorous simmer and cook for 1 to 2 minutes to develop the flavor.
3. Add the fish, turning the pieces to coat in the tomato. Add enough water to just cover the fish. Cover and lower the heat to simmer for 30 minutes. Midway through, turn the fish with two spatulas or chopsticks.
4. Uncover and simmer until the tomato sauce had reduced to about half of the original volume. Turn off the heat, partially cover, and set aside to cool. Refrigerate overnight before eating. Reheat to enjoy hot or warm. If the sardines are too fishy for your palate, add a squirt of lime.
For sardine banh mi:
When using the sardines in a banh mi sandwich, remove the spine and break the fish into large pieces. The little bones that you see poking out in the above photo were okay for me to swallow. Mix the flesh with some of the tomato sauce before stuffing it into the baguette.
For sardine crostini:
Toast the slices of bread. Add mayo, a shot of Maggi Seasoning sauce, and some chopped cilantro. I also added lemon basil and it was a knockout! Then add the sardine. Sprinkle on more herbs, if you like.
For spicy sardine puffs (karipap sardin):
You need 1/3 cup for the filling in Asian Dumplings on page 129. Remove the bones from the fish. Tail pieces are easier to deal with. Then use a fork as instructed to mash flesh. Use 1 tablespoon of the tomato sauce as directed to season the filling.