In 2018, I wrote an article for Garage magazine about the increasing prevalence of tinned fish in New York restaurants. It was a trend I was delighted to witness, for one very simple reason: I love tinned fish. (In fact, as someone who appreciates the importance of omega-3 fatty acids and hates doing dishes, I basically subsist on it.) It can be a chic and toothsome appetizer, or something that you pull from the pantry to liven up your favorite pasta dish. When you get snowed in at your apartment, and there’s nothing fresh left in the house, what could be better than a beautifully patterned can of Portuguese conservas? It’s versatile, eco-friendly, and most importantly of all, delicious—and yet even I could never have foreseen the tinned fish mania that has gripped the world in 2022.
People have nicknamed tinned fish “hot girl food.” There are entire Substacks reviewing the best varieties. There are tinned fish-of-the-month clubs. The cult tinned seafood store Fishwife offers merch that looks more like it belongs to a fully-fledged lifestyle brand than a company selling smoked trout. There have been more tinned fish cookbooks released over the past year or two than you can fathom. I even saw a viral TikTok where a woman says every week she and her husband have a “tinned fish date night,” in which they crack open a few cans and eat straight out of them. (I’m not sure if this has anything to do with it, but my 104-year-old great-grandmother was recently asked out on a date by a man at her nursing home who brought a bag of canned sardines along to sweeten the deal. She said no.)
Clearly, this mania reflects a broader, and more timeless, hunger for simple, inexpensive, shelf-stable foods. But as the tinned fish wave appears to be cresting, I decided to ask a few people—all of whom know food better than anyone else—what they predict could be the next phase of this seemingly unstoppable trend.
“Tinned fish is great, but there’s a time and a place,” says chef and artist Mina Stone, the writer of Cooking for Artists and proprietor of Mina’s at MoMA PS1. “It’s always going to taste like the inside of a can.” Stone predicts that the world of pickles could be the next to get the tinned fish treatment. Part of the appeal of tinned fish is the ability to sample the flavors that different cuisines preserve their fish in, after all, and with pickles, “there are also so many varieties,” Stone explains. “You can span the entire world with different kinds of pickles. I love the Palestinian bright red colorful ones. Or Greek pickled green peppers. Or Indian pickles. Or even American pickles. You can go crazy with the pickles!”
For those who cling tightly to the idea of a fishy snack, however, Stone recommends jars of trout roe. “It’s my new obsession,” she said. “I put it on leftovers. It tastes good on every single thing I’ve tried it on.”
Chef and artist Laila Gohar, meanwhile, had a simple answer: “Beef jerky!” she emailed me. “I’m obsessed!”
Arley Marks, mixologist and designer of Mamo glassware says he’s loving unusual dried fruits these days, especially those from Yun Hai Taiwanese Pantry in Brooklyn. The fruits make for an easy snack that also last a long time, and their offering of pearl guava, green mango, and golden pineapple makes it feel a little more like a treat than garden-variety raisins. “They’re perfect for general, perpetual snacking, but also can be used to liven things up, like in a compote to add depth of flavor, or as a garnish for a champagne cocktail,” Marks says. He likes Yun Hai, in particular, because it sources from independent farmers in Taiwan, many of whom were left scrambling to find buyers for their fruit when “China suddenly banned Taiwanese pineapples.”
“I feel like I was made fun of all the time for eating canned tuna,” says Sakura Smith, the baker behind Bagel Bunny at the lifestyle emporium Salter House in Brooklyn. “So I refuse to buy any of the trendy brands. It’s crazy how expensive they are!” Smith also notes that she’s generally wary of food trends. “I’m also over the whole bean thing,” she says, with a touch of exasperation. “What we need is more cool snacks. I’m waiting for the crazy nuts and pretzels. There’s a way for people to play around with that. I’m trying to do cool bagel chips with leftovers.” Waste also features heavily in her idea of a good snack; more specifically: “chicken skin chips and fish skin chips—kind of healthfood weird, but also delicious.”
Personally, I think seaweed should also have a more significant presence in people’s pantries. Seaweed snacks are downright delicious, while dried nori furikake quickly dresses up salad and rice or lends a meaty undertone to vegan dishes. Then, there’s the whole world of seaweed eating outside of Japanese cuisine. If people are desirous of tins, they should try Welsh Laverbread, a puréed seaweed that’s delectable spread on toast. (I also like Tart’s ocean vinegar, made in Maine with the “three amigos of the ocean, Kombu, Bladderwack, and Irish Sea Moss,” which they suggest adding to a pot of beans to deepen the flavor.) Its ecological impact is also notable. According to Time, “seaweed can play a huge role in fighting climate change by absorbing carbon emissions.” Shifting from environmentally catastrophic yellowfin tuna to more virtuous sardines to downright angelic seaweed feels like the logical next step.
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If the pandemic was good for anything, in my books, it’s that people who previously had little interest in feeding themselves in fun, playful, and nourishing ways awoke to the joys of getting more experimental with food—even if that means making something as ostensibly banal as a can of sardines feel luxurious. If tinned fish was the wedge in the door, then hopefully these other suggestions of foodstuffs you can keep tucked away in the back of a cupboard for a rainy day—or some new kind of worldwide catastrophe—will only keep our yen for ever-more-adventurous flavors going. We can all crack open a can of sardines to that.