Portuguese Sardines in a spicy tomato sauce.
Portuguese Sardines in a spicy tomato sauce.
Image: Dion Govender

Food preservation has been around since the dawn of time, permeating all cultures and geographical locales. We can trace our ancestors’ ability to traverse land bridges and navigate oceans to preserving food for future consumption. Anthropologically, food preservation also played an important  role in developing groups and belief systems. 

Archaeologists have discovered dried foods from as far back as 12,000 BCE with middle eastern and oriental cultures in hot climates. In colder regions, food was frozen for later consumption, harnessing the elements to prolong the life of perishables. The Romans and Phoenicians developed methods to cure game meats and fish using salt. Drying, salting and fermenting, among other techniques, were used to keep food from spoiling.  

It wasn’t until 1810, spurred on by the Preservation Prize set by Napoleon Bonaparte that French chef Nicolas Appert introduced canning. Through trial and error Appert found that food cooked in sealed glass jars would keep  until the seal was broken. The technique was all the more revolutionary considering that Appert had no knowledge of germs or sterilisation, which would only be fully understood 50 years later, thanks to Louis Pasteur.

Building on this foundation, Englishman Peter Durand solved the conundrum of often exploding glass jars by introducing the ubiquitous tin can.  

Remarkably, conflict proved the concept of food canning, playing a crucial role in feeding troops during the Crimean War, the US Civil War and Franco-Prussian War.

The benefits of canning can’t be overstated and played a crucial role in the industrialisation of food production. From locking in the peak ripeness of San Marzano tomatoes, bursting with sweet flavour, to Japanese canned bread, almost all food is capable of being canned.

Venerated for its rich canning history, Portugal supplies some of the world's tastiest sardines. They are mostly hand-packed in olive oil, brine, tomato sauce and a host of other added flavours, including bay leaves and orange. The first commercial cannery opened in 1853. With about 850km of Atlantic coast, excluding the Madeira and Azores archipelagos, Portuguese waters are rich with the incredibly nutritious and sustainable sardines. The Sardina Pilchardus is an oily fish less than 15cm in length and gets its name from the island of Sardinia, where it is found in abundance. Sometimes used interchangeably with Pilchards, they are from the Herring family. Besides being delicious, sardines are an excellent source of nutrients; these little super-fish are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, vitamin D, selenium, calcium and various other minerals proven to aid cognitive function and cardiovascular health.

Container aluminum metallic can storage fish.
Container aluminum metallic can storage fish.
Image: Creative Commons

Enjoyed as a tapa with a glass vinho verde or vermouth in homes and restaurants all over Portugal and the Mediterranean, sardines are typically eaten directly out of the flat can on pieces of toast or cracker, often with a squeeze of lemon.

South African waters host the annual sardine run as the fish spawn in the cool waters of the Agulhas Bank between June and July. It is a spectacle to witness shoals of millions of sardines skirting shallow waters, while fishers with their nets, and children with buckets, catch as many as they can.

You will find canned sardines on the shelves of almost every supermarket and spaza shop. Not just a cheap, convenient hangover meal for college students, canned sardines make a delicious meal for brunch. Below is my recipe for sardines in spicy tomato sauce.

Portuguese Sardines in a spicy tomato sauce.
Portuguese Sardines in a spicy tomato sauce.
Image: Dion Govender


Serves 3

  • 2 cans of Portuguese sardines in olive oil
  • 3 Roma tomatoes, chopped
  • 3 green chillies
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 tsp ginger and garlic paste  
  • 5 curry leaves
  • ¼ tsp black mustard seeds
  • ½ tsp coriander powder
  • ½ tsp cumin powder
  • ½ tsp chilli powder
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Fresh coriander


  • Over medium heat in a small-size saucepan, add a tablespoon of olive oil
  • Once the oil is heated add the mustard seeds and curry leaves; they'll soon start to pop and splutter and become very fragrant.
  • Add onions and green chillies and sauté until onions are translucent
  • Turn the heat to medium-low and add cumin, coriander and chilli powder. Cook for a minute
  • Add tomatoes and cover the pan with a lid; bring to a simmer
  • Season with salt and pepper, and add a teaspoon of sugar to balance the acidity of the tomatoes.
  • Occasionally stir the sauce, making sure to break up any large pieces of tomatoes as they cook.
  • After the tomato sauce has cooked for about 10 minutes you should have a reasonably chunky sauce; open the cans of sardines and gently add to the sauce, including the olive oil in the can. The sardines are cooked, so you just want to infuse them with the spicy tomato sauce.
  • Garnish with some fresh, crisp coriander and serve with fresh bread to mop up the delicious sauce
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