What is ‘canned fish’: TikTok’s pandemic trend of European-style tuna and sardines in restaurants
Sardines swirling in preserved lemon. Mackerel basking in curry sauce. Grilled squid bathed in ink. All are delicacies long popular in Europe that are now making their mark on American menus.
The country’s canned seafood industry is moving beyond tuna sandwiches, a pandemic-era trend that began with lockdown Americans demanding more staples in their cupboards.
Since then, the U.S. market has expanded, fueled by social media influencers touting the benefits of high-strength protein foods in brightly colored metal containers. On the TikTok channel Tinned – Fishionado, Chris Wilson posts recipes for quick meals, including mixing leftover rice, soy sauce, avocado and a runny egg with a can of smoked mussels from Danish company Fangst.
Canned fish, as it’s called in Europe, is now a regular feature on menus at wine bars from San Francisco to Houston to New York, where patrons scoop the contents straight from the can. There are even canned fish clubs that mimic wine clubs by sending members monthly shipments of different seafood packaged in different combinations of seasonings, oils, and sauces. Her videos on canned fish, from tastings to tips on how to clean fish odors from cans, have racked up more than 30 million views on TikTok.
U.S. canned seafood industry sales have grown from $2.3 billion in 2018 to more than $2.7 billion so far this year, according to market research firm Circana.
Becca Millstein opened a canned fish business in Los Angeles in 2020 after eating more of it during the coronavirus lockdowns.
“When we were all quarantined at home, preparing 100% of our meals day in and day out, preparing filling meals took a long time,” she said. “I found myself eating a lot of canned fish, and at the same time, the options I found when I was roaming the aisles of my local grocery store weren’t great.”
Milstein lived in Spain during college and spent time in Portugal, both countries where canned fish has long been part of people’s diets, so she knew there were better options to be had.
“I was eating the same canned fish that my grandmother Rose in Brooklyn used to eat in the 1930s,” she said. “I thought this was just crazy.”
Her company, Fishwife Tinned Seafood Co., set out to provide high-quality, sustainably sourced seafood.
Milstein said she searched for canneries in Spain and Portugal and contacted fishermen along the West Coast who connected her with canneries in Oregon and Washington.
“Our mission is really to catalyze and transform the canned fish industry and make it what we think it can be,” Milstein said, adding that this means offering much more “than just tuna sandwiches.”
Fishwife products, which range in price from $7.99 to $10.99 per can, are meant to be hearty dishes that can be served over rice bowls, on charcuterie boards or in salads, Milstein said. She added that her company’s sales grew by 250% from 2021 to 2022, and are on track to jump by about 150% this year, although she refused to reveal dollar figures.
To that end, Fishwife’s products include smoked salmon that is brined with salt, garlic salt and brown sugar and then hand-packed in boxes with spicy Sichuan potato chips made in Chengdu, China. Our anchovies from the Cantabrian Sea are filled with Spanish extra virgin olive oil, sourced directly from farmers in northern Spain.
The company’s smoked tuna is caught in the Pacific Northwest, one fishing rod at a time to reduce harm to marine species such as sea turtles, sharks, rays, dolphins and seabirds that can be unintentionally caught during commercial fishing operations.
“These are products that you might want to offer to people who come in for dinner,” Milstein said. “It’s not just something you might want to quickly mash up and feed yourself to get quick, cheap protein.”
Simi Grewal, co-founder of wine shop and bar DECANTsf in San Francisco, said her business turned to canned fish to feed customers, partly because she didn’t have a proper kitchen to cook in.
“It’s very versatile, especially when we’re talking about wine pairing,” she said.
Prices for canned fish at the store range from $8 for Ati Manel garfish, a needle-like fish served in olive oil from Portugal, to $36 for Conservas de Cambados ‘Sea Urchin Caviar’ from Spain’s Galician estuaries.
“People make a lot of assumptions about canned fish being a cheap product. And, you know, when you come here, it’s a very curated program. “I spend hours and hours a month researching these guys and trying to find the newest items they have available.”
Canned fish appeals to everyone, from foodies seeking the latest tastes to those stocking their stashes, said Maria Finn, a Bay Area chef and author. She takes mussels from Patagonia Provisions on her annual mushroom hunt for a quick lunch and keeps cans of Wild Planet sardines packed in her purse in case wildfires threaten her home.
“I think if there’s anything that can keep you alive for a long time, it’s a can of sardines packed in olive oil,” she joked.
Canned fish can last up to five years and does not require refrigeration, providing an environmentally friendly alternative to meat, which is the largest agricultural source of greenhouse gases and has a larger carbon footprint than any other source of protein. Scientists say the way humans produce and consume food contributes about 30% to greenhouse gas emissions.
But canned fish is not without its drawbacks.
The US Food and Drug Administration has warned people, especially pregnant women, to avoid eating too much fish, especially tuna or swordfish, which may contain high amounts of mercury. But many cans contain smaller fish like sardines and anchovies which have the added benefit of being low in mercury. However, health officials say canned products tend to have a higher salt content than fresh seafood.
Greenpeace has expressed concerns about overfishing to meet growing demand and warned buyers to do their research to ensure products are sustainable. Longlines are one of the most widely used methods of catching tuna, which can also catch other species such as turtles or dolphins, according to the environmental group.
California was once home to thriving sardine canneries in the coastal city of Monterey, which inspired the book “Cannery Row” by John Steinbeck. This industry disappeared decades ago as fish populations declined. The canneries have long been replaced by hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.
John Field, a research fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, doesn’t expect the big factories to ever come back, but he said the trend could help small local canneries and sustainable fishing.
He admits he thought he was unsure about ordering a tray from the menu.
“Personally, when I go out for an expensive dinner, I probably prefer fresh fish instead of canned,” he said.
Watson reported from San Diego.