Leaning into Umami with Anchovies

Anchovies are seen at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. (GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images)

Anchovies are suddenly everywhere in the Bay Area. This spring, Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, the duo behind State Bird Provisions, are set to open Bar Anchovy, a cozy oyster bar with a focus on local anchovies just around the corner from their hit restaurant in the Fillmore District. 

A few weeks ago at MAMA Oakland, my order of bread came with anchovies and butter—a much bolder offering than balsamic and olive oil. At Berkeley’s Bar Sardine, a nighttime pop-up at the Bartavelle Coffee & Wine Bar, anchovies make an appearance on sandwiches alongside the less salty and oilier sardine. And in summer, a tin of anchovies is a staple in my pantry; they pair well with the sweetness of Early Girl tomatoes and any soft, creamy cheese. Though imported anchovies are common in the Bay Area, the Northern anchovy found off the coast of California is designated as a sustainable fish by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency and available year round. 

If whole fish isn’t your jam, Bay Area fish purveyors Monterey Fish Market, which serves retail customers as well as restaurants, and Oakland’s Umami Mart are selling a new San Francisco-made small batch fish sauce from the no-frills brand, California Fish Sauce. Made with sea salt and Monterey anchovies by Bay Area local Joe Phan, California Fish Sauce promises no dilution, artificial colors or flavors and a 80N rating, a measure of the nitrogen concentration in the sauce per liter. The nitrogen content is an indicator of protein—the higher the N rating, the higher quality, more complex and concentrated the fish sauce. 

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There's also the Hayward-based Red Boat Fish Sauce which was started in 2011 by Cuong Pham who emigrated from Vietnam to the Bay Area for college. Pham’s company fishes for black anchovies off the Vietnamese island of Phu Cuoc, famed for its tiny fish, and ferments them in sea salt for an entire year. The resulting fish sauce, measuring at 40N, is a favorite of savvy home chefs and restaurants like State Bird Provisions. Last year, the company also debuted a powdered salt version carrying the same flavors of their famed fish sauce.

Slowly but surely, anchovies, long relegated to pizza toppings, are emerging from American culinary shadows. In fact, in Pham’s native Vietnam and neighboring Thailand and Laos, the small and salty fish are a core flavoring agent in many dishes. Next time you’re dining out, take heed of that inexplicable but tangible full bodied and aquatic saltiness to your dish. Chances are, it’s anchovy related.

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