Anchovy – just the word alone is enough to wrinkle the noses of many. The salty little slivers, packed with an incredible fishy taste, can often be found lurking on a pizza or in a fishpaste sandwich. It’s understandable if that pungent flavour is what you associate with anchovies, but we’re here to change that.
The process of salting and preserving anchovies is an ancient tradition. The Romans made a fermented anchovy sauce called garum or liquamen, which was added to soups, stews and sauces, and used by cooks almost universally throughout the Empire. Later, salted anchovies appeared in European condiments such as Worcestershire sauce and the original bottles of ketchup (known as catsup). Fermented fish sauces have also been used in Thai and Vietnamese cooking for centuries.
The exact details of the curing process is a bit of a stinky situation: fresh anchovy fillets are left on coarse salt, letting them, well, mature for up to a month. The salt dehydrates the flesh and some fermenting takes place, transforming the flavour and texture of the fish into something special. The end product contains a high concentration of glutamic and inosinic acids, which are compounds that we experience as the sensation of umami.
Umami is the fifth taste – a rich, deep taste best described as ‘savouriness’. Umami is the taste you get from soya sauce, biltong, parmesan cheese and very ripe tomatoes. In high concentrations, it can be found in dried seaweed, Marmite and in the flavour enhancer MSG. Anchovies are a natural source of MSG, making these little guys the star of every meal you’ll cook from today forward.
When it comes to anchovies, there’s only one rule you need to know – these little fish are not ingredients, they serve as seasoning. They live in the same category as salt, chilli flakes and even garlic. In small amounts they can elevate the flavours in your cooking, but in excess they can ruin a whole meal.
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If you haven’t cooked with anchovies before, it’s best to start small. Add a tiny fillet to the onions and oil in your frying pan in the beginning stages of your bolognese sauce. Anchovies also love to play with tomatoes, so add a single fillet to your sauces and stews towards the beginning of the cooking. The heat and liquid will help the fish melt away into the sauce.
Anchovies are excellent with lamb, lifting and enhancing the flavour of the meat, and adding a touch of anchovy to a lamb bredie is actually an old cook’s secret. Melting anchovies into some butter is a delicious way to dress your pasta dishes or even steamed broccoli.
Once you’ve become more accustomed to the flavour, it’s time to kick it up to pro level. Add it to a rich and salty Caesar dressing or Hollandaise sauce on eggs Benedict. You could also add a touch of anchovy to a big batch of Bloody Mary mix, which will add a deep saltiness to the brunchtime cocktail. An anchovy about the size of your pinky finger can be mashed into mayonnaise before it’s added to the potato salad at your next braai. Be careful, though – tiny amounts will add to the flavour, while too much will definitely taste fishy. If you can taste the anchovies in your cooking, you’re doing it wrong.
Remember, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who like anchovies and those who haven’t learnt how to cook with them yet.
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