Portuguese canned fish – How To Eat it like a local

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If you’ve visited Portugal, then you’ve likely encountered the canned fish phenomenon (also called tinned fish or conservas). Wander through the streets of the larger Portuguese cities and you are sure to see shops featuring walls of beautifully decorated cans of tuna, sardines, muscles, octopus, and more. There are even restaurants that serve nothing but these fishy canned delicacies!

My hubby and I recently traveled to Portugal and had the opportunity to try a few different varieties but to be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with them. Since the Portuguese tend to have excellent taste, I set out to learn how they like to eat their canned fish. Here is what I discovered…

Most Portuguese eat canned fish in simple preparations that highlight the rich flavors of the fish and the sauces they are packed in. Canned fish is often served on crusty bread or over a simple salad, mixed with rice or potatoes, or enjoyed straight out of the can for a delicious and healthy snack.

The top 3 ways to eat canned fish like the Portuguese

So you’ve got a few cans of beautiful Portuguese seafood sitting in your pantry ready to be enjoyed. What are you going to do with them? To get the full experience, keep it simple. No matter what kind of fish you’ve got – from sardines to tuna to squid – these super easy preparations are a great choice.

  1. Serve it on top of some really good quality warm, crusty bread. Yumm! It doesn’t get much better than that! If your Portuguese canned fish is packed in olive oil or tomato sauce, that’s all you need. If your canned fish is packed in water, then a drizzle of olive oil or a spread of butter or soft cheese, and a sprinkle of fresh herbs would be perfect additions.
  2. On top of a green salad. Be sure to keep the veggies simple in order to highlight the fish. The olive oil or sauce your fish is packed in will make for a tasty dressing. Or if you’ve got fish packed in water, drizzle a bit of olive oil over everything, and enjoy!
  3. Straight out of the can! Yep! It doesn’t get more simple than this! Why not grab a can of that yummy fish, a fork, a bottle of wine, and maybe some bread for sopping up the extra juices in the can and head out for a picnic? Sounds like a great afternoon to me!
Walls of canned fish in Portugal
It’s a literal wall of canned seafood in this amazing shop in Portugal!

What should I drink with Portuguese canned fish?

Portuguese wine is a good place to start when considering what to pair with Portuguese canned fish. But keep in mind that in general, wine can be hard to pair with fish, and with canned fish, it can get even trickier. There are a lot of strong flavors going on – salt, acid, all those fishy tones – that can clash with or be unpleasantly boosted by the wine.

Your best bet is to look for wines that are very food friendly – generally, that means dry, with high acidity. White wine is the safest bet, with Portuguese Alvarinho (called Albariño if it’s from Spain) or slightly sparkling vinho verde being great options. If you can’t find Portuguese wines in your area, any dry sparkling white or something crisp and minerally, such as pinot gris or dry Reisling will be lovely.

For something a little different, a glass of fortified wine such as white port is a great option! White port tends to be on the dry side, making it more food-friendly than sweeter wines, but has enough body to stand up to the bolder fish flavors. Mix it with tonic, and you’ll be dining just like the Portuguese! Learn more about the classic white port & tonic from Portugal here.

Beer is a great choice, too! In my experience, beer is much easier to pair with any kind of fish than wine – beer doesn’t seem to pull out those tinny flavors that wine often does. The main thing to keep in mind is to not overpower the fish. Crisp, fresh, dry beers, such as Saison, pilsner, or pale ales are a great choice all around. While big, bold beers, like stouts or IPAs, should be tasty with bold smoked or spicy canned fish.

What are the most common types of Portuguese canned seafood?

Canned sardines are probably the most well know, but there are so many other options to explore! Sardine roe is quite common. There is also an abundance of canned tuna, mackerel, cod, trout, anchovies, and even eel. And there are plenty of other types of seafood conservas on offer in Portugal, with canned muscles, squid, and octopus being very popular.

You can also find many different preparation styles – from chunks of fish lightly seasoned in olive oil to fish patès to stuffed squid to spicy and saucy combos and even seafood packed with other goodies like chickpeas (affiliate link). So many choices!

The Fantastic World of Portuguese Can
A whimsical shop with a whimsical name!

Do I have to cook Portuguese canned fish before I eat it?

Nope! That’s the beauty of canned seafood in general – it’s ready to go! The fish is cooked during the canning process, so all you need to do is open it up and enjoy.

Should I rinse canned fish?

Again, nope! If the fish is packed in water then you might want to drain it to avoid watering down your finished dish, but even that is optional. Generally, whatever liquid is in the can, in particular olive oil or a sauce, is full of flavor, so why rinse it down the drain?

If the flavors are too strong or salty for your taste, rather than rinsing the fish, try pairing it with something that could use a bit more flavor – such as plain rice or steamed potatoes.

What about the bones and skin in a can of Portuguese sardines? Can I eat everything in the can?

Yes, indeed! You can eat every bit of it! The bones soften and become edible during the canning process. However, some folks do prefer to remove the spine from whole canned sardines. If that’s you, simply use a fork or knife to open each sardine as you would a book, then gently scrape away the spine and discard. Easy!

Beautifully decorated Portuguese canned fish
Such pretty packaging! I wanted to take one of everything from this cute little shop in Lisbon!

There you have it! All that you need to know to start eating Portuguese canned fish (or any canned fish, for that matter) like a local! So why not pick up a few cans of something yummy, grab yourself some delicious fresh bread, and maybe a bottle of wine or some beer, and have yourself a Portuguese-inspired meal? Sounds delicious to me!

Portuguese Canned Fish
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Julie Cockburn with the Taste Of The Place cookbook

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