A mention of anchovies to many eaters evokes an image of small fish slapped randomly on a slice of greasy pizza. While I personally enjoy this preparation, there are much more subtle ways to use these tasty little fish in your cooking. Anchovies are one of the greatest source of the delicious savory flavor known as umami (say it out loud and you will know what flavor it’s describing). They are best used when liquified into food either in the form of fish sauce or salted filets melted into sauce.
Fresh out of the sea, the anchovy does not look like a fantastic meal. They are closer to the size of a shrimp than a trout and look to be more bone than meat. While they may not initially seem appealing to a casual human eater, anchovies are an important source of food in every ecosystem they exist in. In order to for anchovies to reach their culinary potential they must first cure in a salt brine.
In Roman times, salted fish was a huge trade and anchovies were considered one of the finest salted fish. Another popular use for anchovies was the production of garum or liquamen. Garum was a sauce produced by salting, fermenting and eventually straining the liquid off of small fish such as anchovies. While this practice has faded in the region it remains a vital practice in Southeast Asia where fish sauce, called nuoc mam in Vietnam, is still produced and enjoyed on a massive scale.
While the use of Garum faded from western cuisine, salted anchovies remained present in italian and at one point english cooking. The original ketchup was a British condiment influenced by indonesian fish sauce (called kecap ikan). Eventually fish was phased out in the vinegar based sauce and replaced by walnut or mushroom. Only once the sauce made it to America did it transform into the ubiquitous tomato sauce that we know today.
Next time someone puts their nose up at the mention of anchovies, remind them that they are in the marinara at any decent italian restaurant, pretty much any dish they eat at a southeast asian restaurant (notably vietnamese and thai), as well as in their bloody marys, barbecue sauce and on their steaks (in the form of Worcestershire sauce). Or you could just slip it in their food and watch them enjoy it.
A couple uses:
For Marinara: Chop up filets and liquify them in your sauteed garlic and olive oil before adding your canned tomatoes (a Wilson classic!)
For Bloody Marys: Add fish sauce to your bloody mary mix.