Canned sardines and pickled vegetables are among the many staples flying off supermarket shelves during the pandemic.
Grocery items people normally dismiss or perhaps under-appreciate suddenly have immense value.
While I have not hoarded anything, I do buy a few varieties of canned food – sardines, anchovies and mussels – to ensure I have some good nibbles on hand for mandatory virtual happy hours.
I started thinking: Why are people so judgmental when it comes to preserved foods?
Scandinavia, the world’s greatest consumer of canned goods, has a fondness for them. Spain, too, holds the humble can in high esteem. Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong indulge in canned goods – abalone, anyone?
Not just for times of crisis but for everyday eating, simple ingredients can transform a ho-hum tin of food into something spectacular. Think king crab on rice or a one-minute sushi bowl. Or how about Icelandic fish ball hot pot?
There is much to love about canned food and here are my favourites.
1 Clams, tuna belly and anchovies from Spain
Tapas come to mind immediately when people think of Spain.
Anchovies, Galicia clams and fatty tuna belly from Spain are some of the most expensive and sought-after items preserved in a can.
So do not be surprised if you go to a restaurant like Conservas Nudista in Madrid and are served just a can of sardines as tapas. Like a local, savour the tinned delicacy.
How to serve it: Anchovies lightly grilled on toast, accompanied with sangria.
2 Fish balls from Iceland and Norway
If you love fishcakes in your laksa, you will love the canned fish balls from Iceland and Norway.
My friends tell me the Scandinavians have a huge culture and warm affection for canned food.
Iceland fish balls come in a pink sauce and apparently no holiday meal or even Sunday roast is complete without canned green beans or canned beetroots.
In Norway, the fish balls are in a white curry sauce. They are seasonal, with winter being the best time to eat them.
How to serve it: Fish ball mee pok, anytime, anywhere.
3 Terrine, foie gras and rillette from France
The French are very snobbish when it comes to food, but do you know that they love eating morsels out of a can?
Not just sardines, but also duck, sausage and, of course, foie gras can be found in a can.
Rillette, which is a slow-cooking preservation method, is used for different types of meat such as pork, duck and even salmon in fat. These are then canned or preserved in a jar before being enjoyed by French gourmets. Bon appetit.
How to serve it: The best way to enjoy rillette is to smear it over buttered toast.
4 Artichoke hearts from Italy
I remember eating my first roasted artichoke heart in Rome in a busy family-run restaurant, sitting by the bar and enjoying the chaos of the trattoria.
The capital of Italy has a love affair with this spring vegetable, with the carciofi alla giudia or fried artichokes being found largely in the Jewish neighbourhood here, where it originated.
Italians love to preserve artichokes, enjoying them all year round. A soft-braised artichoke heart, served with Tuscan olive oil, is a perfect starter and an accompaniment to a bold Italian red wine.
How to serve it: Great as an antipasto or diced into a risotto.
5 Crab and sea urchin from Japan
In Japan, foodie travellers may go straight from Narita Airport to Tsukiji Market for uber-fresh fish.
But rather than waking up before the break of dawn and heading to what is now called Toyosu Market, the newly located and revamped fish market of Tokyo, good seafood can be enjoyed at the pop of a can.
Maruha-Nichiro, which has been canning fresh seafood for more than a century, has taken the process to a new level by offering ready-to-eat and sustainable Alaskan king crab, plump Japanese scallops and grilled teriyaki mackerel.
How to serve it: Whole pieces of king crab on steamed rice or soya-glazed mackerel with congee – easy.
6 Sardines from Portugal
Globally, Portugal is considered one of the best at canning.
When canning was introduced in the 19th century, Portugal had more than 400 canneries and its industry was considered artisanal because everything was done by hand.
Only a handful of canning factories still operate this way, including the oldest brand Conservas Pinhais & Cia.
Its secret sauces are made with natural ingredients. Fresh-caught fish are used, not frozen. And everything is done manually from start to finish, including packing the little fish.
How to serve it: Sardines in olive oil on fresh rye bread. Pair with port wine.
7 Spam from Hawaii
Definitely not a high-end staple nor something I enjoy, but Spam has a cult following. Loved by many Americans, especially in Hawaii, Spam is processed meat in a can. It is versatile and can be rendered into Spam fried rice, Spam stir-fry and even Spam Wellington. There is even a Spam upside-down pineapple cake.
How to serve it: As the locals do, place the Spam on top of rice, sushi-style (Spam musubi).
8 Canned squid, bamboo and even sweet congee from Taiwan
Taiwan loves canned food and does it very well with a huge selection available for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Soya-glazed squid, fried fish in black bean sauce and vinegary bamboo shoots are fabulous when served with silky rice congee, hand-pulled noodles as a side dish or dumplings.
There is even sweetened rice congee with red beans and barley, for times when you need something luscious and just cannot do anything but open a can and eat.
How to serve it: Rice congee with canned squid, eel and fried fish for breakfast.
9 Herring from Germany
Germany has a long history and appreciation for canned food.
Along the coast of Germany, you will find many places selling herring served in a buttered white dinner roll. This is the ultimate German street food after currywurst, a sausage smothered in curry.
Herring comes in a tin or jar and can be found everywhere in Germany in a simple brine or pickled with onions and dill, which is my favourite.
How to serve it: Butterfly the herring straight out of the tin and place on rice, then grill quickly.
• Born in Australia and based in Europe, Michelle Tchea relishes artisanal canned food, which is also a convenient excuse for her not to cook “properly” yet be fully satisfied at the table.
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