Eat Your (Canned) Fish

It’s been a month since we got back to Seoul and I’m still blogging about Portugal. Too busy, too lazy, both. I’ve already talked in detail about the plentiful and cheap fresh fish and seafood readily available in Portugal. I’ve also talked about bacalhau, dry salted cod which constitutes an important part of the Portuguese meal.

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What you’re looking at are beautifully packaged cans of local fish. So what? Canned fish = hardly appetizing, right? Also, why eat canned fish in Portugal, of all places, when you can find fresh catch everywhere? Weird. Or, so I thought.

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Turns out canned fish has gone gourmet in Portugal in recent years. In Lisbon and Porto, the two largest cities in the country, gourmet canned fish shops have popped up all over the city. I’m talking about restaurants where you can sit down and order canned fish as a meal as well as walk-in groceries where you can buy all manner of canned fish and seafood from a wide range of brands.

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Like Loja da Conservas, a newly-opened delicatessen we happened to walk into in Lison. I was amazed to find that every major manufacturer in the country were represented here, each one profiled on a series of information panels displayed between the shelves.

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Written in both English and Portuguese, the text offers a summary of the companies responsible for canning the fish, when they were founded, their location and their brands. As a purveyor of premium seafood, this store also sells eel, trout, anchovy, squid and octopus, mostly preserved in olive oil. Some are seasoned with lemon, tomato sauce, curry, cloves and various pickled vegetables.

Ramirez, the first commercial cannery in Portugal (and the oldest in Europe), opened in 1853 in  Setúbal, which eventually became the center for sardine canneries. By the mid 1980s, there were around 150 canning factories in Portugal, producing around 34,000 tons a year, making the country one of thge largest exporters of canned fish in the world. However, there was a huge decline in the canning industry in the the 90s and the number of factories plunged from 152 to just 20. That changed following the recent economic recession in Portugal, as canned fish were cheap and, hence, more people started eating it again.

SAMSUNG CSCCanned fish is now in fashion in Portugal and producers offer boutique brands of the highest quality fish, adopting traditional methods and packaging, recreating the colorful and enticing kitch retro labels that were once popular back in the iconic period of canned fish.

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This particular shop is definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. Check out their adorable totes and other giftable items, if canned fish just doesn’t appeal to you.

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Sol e Pesca is a canned food themed hole-in-the-wall bar that was featured on the Lisbon episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” which also happened to be just around the corner from Loja da Conservas from where we’d just shopped. I’d marked this place down a few days earlier while browsing through different websites and it seemed, at the time, like something fun we could check out. We were intrigued but more skeptical and mostly hungry from exploring the city that morning. So, we got a table outside and asked for the menu.

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The interior. You get the idea. We ordered five to start with: smoked mackerel, smoked trout, octopus, stuffed squid in chili oil and sardines in a spicy tomato sauce.

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Smoked mackerel and a basket of bread.

SAMSUNG CSCSo, how they serve the fish is they remove the contents of the can, dress the fish with good olive oil or chili oil and garnish it with fresh herbs like cilantro and green onions and serve it with a wedge of lemon.

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House-made chili oil with dried piri piri. So good.

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Smoked trout. And, stuffed baby squid in chili oil.

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The verdict? We really enjoyed the meal. So much so that we walked away with a bunch of canned fish as souvenirs to bring back home.

The fish were surprisingly fresh and flavorful. A side of salad, a basket of good bread, some canned fish and cool beers turned out to be a memorable lunch and it definitely helped change our perception of canned food.

Would we go back? Definitely.

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