Consider the anchovy. That’s what Nick Perkins, a chef and the owner of Hart’s in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, would like you to do should you visit his restaurant and desire a burger. The only item on the menu that does not change with the season or the day of the week, it is a lamb patty served on a bun with fennel, aioli and an unusual optional upgrade: a row of marinated anchovies.
“We get a lot of people who are like, ‘Really? Is it really good?’” Mr. Perkins said. “And we always say, ‘We’ll buy your burger if you don’t like it.’ But it just never happens. People really like it.”
Mr. Perkins is allergic to dairy and always looking for foods to fill the cheese-shaped void in his heart. He found that tinned fish could act as a nondairy stand-in. “For me, learning about anchovies — my mom’s Italian, I spent a lot of time in Italy growing up — they do the exciting umami work that Parmesan does, for example,” he said.
The anchovy may have once been a punch-line and an item of derision, especially among the cartoon turtles of the late 1980s. And more recently, a 2016 Harris Poll surveying 2,193 American adults about their favorite pizza toppings found that anchovies were the least liked. But anchovies are slowly being adopted by an American public that is more open-minded to the small fish than they once were.
According to the most recent data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 3 percent of fish caught in the United States in 2017 was used as canned human food — including anchovies and other small fish, like herring or sardines (an increase from 2 percent the year before). But to understand why, one must understand where the anchovies we eat today come from, and what an anchovy is.
The anchovy is a small, 3-inch fish raised in seawater. There are about half a dozen species of the anchovy in the world, and each of them can be eaten. You can buy and eat fresh anchovies if you happen to be in the vicinity of where they’re caught, but most often anchovies are jarred and tinned, or pulverized to use as a paste in sauces or salad dressings. American chefs are foisting small fish on diners in an attempt to make the fish palatable to trusting audiences.
In her 2017 cookbook “Dining In: Highly Cookable Recipes,” Alison Roman, a writer and regular contributor to The New York Times Food section, offers readers recipes for roasted tomato and anchovy bucatini and a whole chicken rubbed in anchovy butter and then roasted. She has been a tiny-fish evangelist for years; her readers have taken a while to come around.
“I’m not trying to use ingredients to be cool or contrarian or bold. I use them because I think they’re going to make you enjoy the food more and they’re going to make you a better cook,” she said. “I feel like I had to work for a really long time to get people to trust me in the anchovy spirit.”
Anna Harrington, a baker who runs a cookie-shipment service called the Rounds, includes one unorthodox flavor combination on her online menu: anchovy scallion.
“I really wanted to include anchovies because I feel like there aren’t a lot of crackers out there with fish in them,” she said. “Anchovies are really decadent and delicious and have an incredible richness and go really well with butter. My cookies have tons of butter. Really, they’re mostly butter. It felt like a natural pairing to me.”
Ms. Harrington acknowledges that the fish cookies don’t sell as well as her other flavors, but she has no plans to take them off the menu. “The people who like the anchovy cookies are obsessed with it,” she said. “It’s their favorite thing.”
Katie Parla, a food-and-beverage educator and culinary writer living in Rome, published a book this year about the land of the anchovy: the Italian South. Ms. Parla eats her fair share of tinned fish there and says that if you’re looking for the real deal, you should source your anchovies from the waters off the coast of Italy. “The cold waters of the Cantabrian Sea produce incredible, meaty anchovies, and even Italian connoisseurs place them above those of the west coast of Italy,” she said in an email.
Anchovies are caught in nets and are not typically farmed. In the U.S., they’re caught using a purse seine, a large wall of netting that captures many fish simultaneously. In one town on the Campanian coast, Pisciotta, fishers use something called a menaica net, which is said to date back to Ancient Greece, according to Ms. Parla. Menaica nets are more sustainable; the way the nets are designed guarantees that only anchovies past reproductive age are caught, which helps to ensure the survival of the species. When small Italian producers catch anchovies, the fish are quickly processed — their heads and guts are removed — then the fillets are layered with coarse sea salt and ultimately tinned, with or without olive oil.
Alberto Recca, of the popular Sicilian anchovy namesake brand, said that anchovies originally initially infiltrated the U.S. because they were popular among south Mediterranean immigrants living here. “The Italians, Portuguese, Spaniards, French and Greeks who enjoyed this delicacy in their home countries introduced it to their American neighbors,” he said in an email. “The present growing popularity of anchovies in the U.S. can be attributed to Americans who have tried them in trattorias and beachfront restaurants in their travel to the Mediterranean basin, especially Italy and Spain.”
Scientists remain conflicted about how sustainable the small fish can really be. Some ocean scientists worry that harvesting small schooling fish could have consequences for other sea life.
“It’s not that anchovies are more or less sustainable than other fish species — it’s that they’re really deeply connected to the rest of the food web,” said Phil Levin, a professor of practice at the University of Washington and the lead scientist for the Nature Conservancy in Washington. “So fishing them has consequences that propagate.”
Overfishing anchovies, a crucial part of ocean food webs, could have consequences down the line, in terms of the food resources available to birds, mammals and big fish. But in terms of how fishers catch anchovies, Mr. Levin said their methods make them a sustainable food choice.
From a carbon footprint point of view, he said, purse seine, the method used to fish anchovies, “is pretty good,” Mr. Levin said. “If you think about the total environmental impact of these small fisheries, they’re really quite a good fishery.” And, he added, the nutrient density in anchovies is high because they contain good oils and micronutrients. Other fish scientists say that consuming fewer of the bigger fish at the top of the food chain and more of their prey is a good way to rebalance the marine ecosystem.
In a 2011 study, Villy Christensen, a professor at the University of British Columbia specializing in ecosystem modeling, found that fish at the top of the food chain had been wiped out; over the past century, populations of these fish have shrunk by about two-thirds.
Dr. Christensen urged diners to consume more forage fish, including anchovies and sardines, and reduce their intake of bigger fish to help rebalance the fish species in the ocean. Plus, he said in a phone call, “small fish like anchovies are nutritious, affordable and have lots of nutrients and healthy fats and protein. It’s much more healthy to eat that than things like whitefish or tilapia. They don’t compare at all to the nutritious value of anchovies.”
Mr. Perkins said that Hart’s is still working to win over the hearts, minds and stomachs of some skeptical diners. “I think people are less scared of little fish,” he said.