The Fish Named Weak
Sardines are weak. As it is the rule for the weak, they act in concert – swimming in shoals and running in schools (you are free to look up the difference yourself) – so that they can take on a semblance of grandeur, by appearing larger than self, which is nothing but a sliver of a fish. Sadly, however, their pitiable pretense fools no one as their predators eagerly await their lunch to come to them with open fins and gills, and mouths. Docile-looking (looking only) dolphins chase these weaklings into “bait balls,” conveniently packaged for the sharp teeth of the shadowing sharks and the wide mouths of the waiting whales. And, of course, do not forget the king of predators – humans – who hunt them down with sonar and nets.
Sardines are weak. They are so weak that the stress of being fished scares them into spontaneous scaling – granted, threat of bodily harm is scary, but – which, unfortunately has the effect of depriving them of the last armor and prepping themselves for the hot grill. Being at the bottom of the oceanic food chain, their destiny is to become someone else’ next dinner.
They are weak when they were alive, but sardines are weak even when they are dead. Their small bodies begin collapsing as soon as they are out of the water – a shortcoming which limits their marketability and desirability. If their fatty fishiness had not already turned away many customers, their pungent carcass surely would. Perishable but profuse, their plentitude causes them to be sold ever more cheaply, either to the poor people around the port or to the canneries, which would can them into cheap tins.
Sardines – these unfortunate creatures – are so weak that they are even named as “weak fish” in Japanese (iwashi).
That is the sad little tale of the sad little fish. Sardines are weak either alive or dead; and those who eat this weak fish have also been weak. The bottom of the oceanic food chain has fittingly fed the bottom of the human food chain for many ages and across many seas. Widely consumed wherever there is ocean, weak, little sardines swim in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and in the Pacific, and travel from Africa, to Europe, to Asia and to the America.
Their popularity does not just come from their low-price tag, but their taste, too. Fat is tasty. Fat appeals to the primordial – our forgotten survival instinct – directly and violently. While the fat and dark meat of the blue fish make sardines even more loathsome to fish haters, the very same part attracts the fish connoisseurs. The appeal is so strong and ancient that a female writer in the Japanese royal court – Murasakishikibu, who wrote the Tale of Genji, during the Heian era (around 1000 A.D.) – had to hide her gusto for the cheap and common sardines behind her husband’s back.
Cheap, but tasty – sardines are a part of the staple diet of many nations; and naturally, the creative and insatiable human mind and stomach have created a whole cornucopia of recipes on sardines. Delicious simply grilled – with a squeeze of lemon or with grated daikon – or stewed – in tomato sauce or in soy sauce; nonetheless, the sardines’ moment of glory is, no doubt, embodied in Sicily’s pasta con le sarde for its complexity and the nuance of flavors.
Pasta con le sarde is not only a triumph over adversity – creating elegance out of humble ingredients – but it is also a triumph of diversity – a mélange of the Arabic (and the Spanish, if tomato is included) flare with the native Sicilian flora and fish. Sicily has been a land of occupation for centuries: its culture is a potluck legacy of the Greek, the Roman, the Byzantine, the Arabic, the French and the Norman-English. Although each has left its indelible mark on the language and culture, the most influential was the Arabic because it had transformed and created the Sicilian cuisine. No other dish symbolizes this unique unification more than the pasta con le sarde – which is believed to have been invented in the 9th century by a cook in the Byzantine navy, which had to align (or rather, realign) its allegiance to the Arabs. Regardless of its origin, the recipe twirls the Arabian pine nuts and saffron with the Sicilian wild fennel (finocchietto) and sardines with the local invention – pasta.
Sicily’s climate makes it suitable for wheat cultivation; and indeed, it was the granary of the Roman Empire. However, it took the arrival of the Arabs to turn the fresh, soft pasta into macaroni or pasta secca, namely the dried pasta (in Italian language, especially in the middle ages, the word, “macaroni” was used as a generic term as we would use the word, “pasta” today). (Before jumping up and down and shouting Marco Polo, please refer to the in-depth analysis at http://www.cliffordawright.com/caw/food/entries/display.php/id/50/). The invention is significant: the technological innovation prolonged the shelf life of the heretofore perishable pasta fresca into portable pasta secca.
We do not know whether the ingenuous cook who invented pasta con le sarde had pasta secca at hand, but today, the recipe invariably calls for bucatini – which is a dried pasta the tubular macaroni, but longer. Take a pan and pour in some of the good olive oil, toss in pungent garlic and aromatic wild fennel (a leafier and leaner and smaller version of the bulbous fennel) and fresh sardine meat while the bucatini is cooking; add a bit of saffron water and uvetta (Sicilian raisins), then finish off with toasted pinoli (pine nuts) and a sprinkle of toasted pangrattato (bread crumbs). In the old days when food was scarce and when there was no wondrous “Wonder Bread,” people used stale bread – and ate it. Surprise, surprise. As a matter of fact, Sicily excels in cucina povera (poor man’s cooking) and is quite the specialist in the genre of breadcrumbs – stuffing it into sardine, mackerel, squid and eggplant and sprinkling them on top of everything else.
Despite its plebian origin or because of it, pasta con le sarde has become the quintessential Sicilian dish. All the ingredients are readily available at home: in cupboard are the dried pasta, raisins, pine nuts and bread, so one only needs to nip off to the market to get some finocchietto and sardines to pump out a delicious lunch (contrary to popular belief, Italians do not eat pasta for every meal).
So far so good: five simple, staple ingredients. However, from here on, the ideal, the convention, the custom and the reality start to diverge somewhat. Granted, not everything is always at hand, and sometimes the weather is so bad that there are no fresh fish in the market. In fact, there is a version called pasta con le sarde a mare, meaning the sardines are still in the sea (so not in the pasta). However, the dispute is not on the issue of sardines (or the lack of), but on “tomatoes.” Just as the Spanish had once ruled the world, their legacy – the tomatoes – have reconquered the former territories, and more. Hence, the question is: to add or not to add tomatoes into the quintessentially Sicilian pasta con le sarde? The Spanish House of Aragon ruled Sicily for about 200 years until 1492, the year Columbus sailed for the America; therefore, pomodoro arrived in Sicily, not directly from the Spanish rule, but a couple of centuries later from Tuscany. Roughly speaking, there is a gap of 1,000 years between the invention of this ingenious recipe and the use of tomato in cooking (originally, they were cultivated for looking, not eating).
On one hand, since tomatoes were not existent in this part of the world in the 9th century, so by virtue of historical accuracy, the addition of tomatoes renders the dish inauthentic. On the other hand, should not authenticity also evolve with the changes of time? If tomato were to be the dividing line, then half of the famous Italian dishes would be ruled out as inauthentic. Even in Palermo – which takes credit as the birth place of the emblematic dish – today pasta con le sarde comes with and without tomatoes. To be clear, both versions are equally delicious. However, the reason behind the recent prevalence of the tomato version is more suspect. One part may be due to the corruption of the modern palate as it is more and more conditioned, or addicted to, anything with tomato (ketchup in the fridge?) as it is naturally packed with glutamate. Another part and the more egregious part seems to due to the soaring price of other ingredients. Saffron has become edible gold, in the all too literal sense, and thus it is now too expensive to be tossed into a humble pasta dish. Besides, even when used, how many palates would be able to detect the effervescence of these red threads? Good saffron costs around 9 dollars per gram, so let’s just pretend it is there somewhere in the pasta.
Tumbling down the moral and culinary ladder, many restaurants substitute spaghetti with the bucatini – the latter costs more and cooks longer; and many more skip pine nuts – due to the skyrocketing price of these subtle-scented nuts. Who would notice, really? The current generation is forgetting and forsaking old flavors faster than the pizza delivery. Tradition is going down the kitchen sink fast and furious.
So, what is the state of affairs in Palermo today?
Opened in 2011 and immensely popular during lunch time, La Tavernaccia Da Mario dominates an otherwise quiet street in Palermo. “Don’t worry! We use spaghetti grossi, not the regular ones!” the exuberant owner promised over the phone. However, his exuberance waned somewhat when further pressed as to the existence of the pine nuts, saying only, “we will make it the way you like!” However, the pasta con le sarde at 6 Euros arrived senza pinoli and without bread crumbs. For the latter, a small glass jar for their “special” toasted bread crumbs was provided so the customers could add this humble condiment as much or as little as desired. Updated to the 21st century, people want real food – not just filler food such as crumbs of old bread.
Abundant finocchio selvatico – check – bright yellow color – check – lots of sardine meat – check- black little raisins – check. Wait, go back one – sardines? There are different kinds of sardines, but one that is pink? The meat certainly did not taste like sardine with the telltale bitter dark flesh; instead, it was just bland. Pink, but neither did it taste like salmon per se – although the blanched flavor could be attributed to the boiled and bottled salmon-trout family. Furthermore, gingerly, scooping a little of the greasy looking breadcrumbs further confirmed the suspicious smell – it was not toasted and crumbled stale bread, but stale toasted and crumbled stale bread. The frying oil used had already seen too many suns and moons and arancini (Sicily’s famous risotto croquettes). Amidst the sorry mess of salmon-trout-sardines and spaghetti grossi – at least, thick and chewy as promised – saffron, surprisingly present, sighed softly its delicate sigh.
After all, that was at a tavernaccia – which was just a lung up from a saloon bar on the restaurant hierarchy (of course, nowadays, the names are no longer indicative). Hence, for a veritable version, let us consult the master at Il Maestro del Brodo. Located in the heart of the meaty Vucciria Market, casual but a bit classier, its bucatini con sarde e finocchietto selvatico was 10 Euros, compared to the 6 Euros above – a 67% price increase but at 60% of portion reduction. Dusted lightly with breadcrumbs, it appeared at first glance to be the real deal. However, the reddish tint of the sauce confirmed the presence of tomato, not too much as to be overpowering but enough to hide the demure flavor of saffron (or its very lack). But the real problem was not the tomato, but the sauce: despite its wild appearance, the wild fennel tasted insipid and the sardine flesh had fallen apart into a fibrous ragu. The saving grace was the well-cooked bucatini, but the long macaroni had no flavor to suck into the coveted hole.
Then, onto Ferro di Cavallo, on the other side of the busy Via Roma from the Maestro: opened in 1944, it is not just a trattoria, but it is an institution. The locals and the tourists jostle for the packed tables from 10 a.m. on for their super-sized pastas – large even for the Palermitani. Having been in business for three generations, if anyone should know old-school, they should. Their piping hot pasta con le sarde could be easily shared by a family of four with the generous servings of meaty sardines. The bold flavor was a typical agrodolce – sweet and sour with the uvetta raisins and tomatoes. Properly covered with bread crumbs, it had enough force to knock you into a food stupor for the rest of the afternoon. In effect, the bold and wild flavor were so forceful that one could forget the lack of pine nuts (and probably the saffron as well) until half way through the dish. Kudos to the chef, who had tamed these beasts with a skillful touch of tomatoes and merged the ingredients into a working circus of fragrances and flavors for a modern rendition of pasta con le sarde. Sadly, however, the leash was too soft – the spaghetti was slightly overdone – so that the coherence started to break apart toward the latter half of the performance.
One omission which was uniformly shared by all three – the pine nuts. Ferro di Cavallo’s website in fact lists a recipe for the pasta with the pine nuts, but the small-print at the bottom points out that it may not be the recipe used in the restaurant. Where then does one find a pasta con le sarde con pinoli, if not in Palermo?
A tiny trattoria with only six seats in Osaka holds one version of the answer. But, first of all, you may wonder why in Japan? Overfamiliarity is blinding: uniqueness is often buried among repetition and its significance lost in mundanity. Hence, it often takes a foreign eye to see through the accumulated dust of the daily to the culture core, and even to sweet off the dust and put it back to its rightful place. Nostalgia – that noble yearning – affects in a funny way: we only miss and reminisce when it is beyond reach and perhaps lost forever. In a sense, those foreigners, whose soul does not sing with the domestic harmony, but rather resonates with the exotic tenor, have such yearning that can never be fulfilled. By nature and by culture, they are eternally excluded, and their exclusion bores into their longing like acid on a wound. Burning with ideology, these zealous neo-patriots are protective of heritage, which are not their own, and after returning to their native homeland, their alien faith creates cultural walls, segregating them from the mainstream, which now regards the returnees as “foreigners.” Their isolation further sharpens their lonely longing, and they withdraw further into their shell of memories. Mal di Sicilia – an unrequited love.
Chef Onishi at Onishi-Tei Licchio’s suffers from such an incurable malady. As if fighting poison with poison, he, through fierce loyalty, adamantly adheres to the catechism of heritage (as he believes it), heedless of the Japanese custom (and customers) and regardless of profitability. Hence, it is only to be expected that Chef Onishi would only use bucatini for his pasta con le sarde and would toss in pine nuts gingerly but generously – after all, it is not prohibitively expensive, yet – with Sicilian uvetta and wild fennel. The saffron was subdued, but the color was its proof enough. His creation was a beautiful homage to Sicily: his love shone through the fragrant pine nuts and fatty sardines, his ego through the al dente bucatini. Perfect….almost. Disentangling the strands of just to make sure, alas, no bread crumbs.
Perhaps the original Licchio’s also used no breadcrumbs, and Chef Onishi only remained true to what he had learned. However, think again – pasta con le sarde is, after all, a cucina povera (poor man’s cuisine). Hence, you may eliminate the pine nuts and even the sardine, but taking out the bread crumbs is tantamount to taking out the heart of the dish. And, the toasted crumbs do add a distinctive layer of savory crunch to the dish. Therefore, for cultural and culinary reasons, bread crumbs should never be omitted. In a rich nation like Japan, where tons of food are wasted everyday, has Chef Onishi forgotten the humble origin of pasta con le sarde? In staunchly sticking to the forms, has he forgotten the soul of the dish?
In recent years, the sardines have made a quiet come back. Not exactly toppling acai or green tea on the superfood hit chart yet, the omega fatty acids and the protein, coupled with low price and low level of mercury have made them much more desirable even to the higher echelon of the society. In Japan, sardines were once so copious and cheap that people used sardine oil for lamps and as fertilizers in the rice paddies. Today, however, the once abundant fish are no longer quite so and the price per kilo had risen at an alarming rate at the Tsukiji Fish Market so that it made into the national headline news. The scholars blamed the rise in water temperature, which brought in another round of climate change debate. Fortunately, for the time being now, the rise in price has stabilized and the sardines seem to find the Japanese water comfortable enough to swim along, and people have forgotten about the sardine crisis.
Affordability is an economic question: the price determined by supply and demand. So, how long can we continue to afford these cheap fish? There seems to be more and more wild cards to skew the curve. In addition, perhaps, the bigger question is, how longer will we be able to appreciate this bounty of the ocean, against the tidal wave of fast food and food fads? We have abandoned our humility in our newfound rich, thumbing our noses at cheap sardines and opting for fancy foie gras and fatty tuna, oblivious of the unsavory truth that, in the long run, foie gras will also make our livers foie gras and the mercury in tuna may just make us more mental than we already are.
John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row describes the lives and the people working on the sardine canning factory, but it is more than a funny portrayal of a local phenomenon:
“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream… How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise—the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream—be set down alive?”
Indeed, how do we capture the lost culture through cooking? If only we can can the flavors and the fragrances of time forgotten so that we can open the can and relish it when we have nothing else. Sardine fishing is said to be a "litmus paper" for the fishing season (because, remember, the sardines do not feed just us but other bigger fish, too). Then pasta con le sarde is a litmus paper for the humans: which side are we on? We change and we must change, as we are creatures of the Earth subject to the inescapable force of time. However, for the better or for the worse? Perhaps only sardines can tell.
La Tavernaccia Da Mario
Address: 90141, Via Pignatelli Aragona, 88, Palermo PA
Hours: Sat/Wed/Th/Fi 12:30–3:30PM, 8–11PM; Mon/Tue 12:30–3:30PM
Phone: 347 511 1312
Closed on Sunday.
Il Maestro del Brodo
Address: via pannieri n° 7, Palermo, Italy
Tel: 091 329523
Hours: 12:30-3:30PM/Dinner only on Friday & Saturday from 8:00.
Closed on Monday.
Ferro di Cavallo
Address: Via Venezia, 20, 90133 Palermo PA
Hours: 10AM–3:30PM, 7–11:30PM (Mon & Tue Lunch only)
Phone: 091 331835
Closed on Sunday.
Onishi-Tei Trattoria Licchio's
Address: 1-3-19 Motomachi Naniwa-ku, Osaka, Japan