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Comfort in a Can

You can turn up your nose all you like, scoff all you like and even feel sorry for me if you like, the fact is, there is nothing quite like opening a can of sardines to whip up a fast, delicious meal.

With the plethora of brands and flavours that adorn the supermarket shelves these days, my preference always has been and will remain a good ole can of Brunswick sardines in oil. Don’t bother me with the ones in Louisiana hot sauce, mustard sauce, lemon sauce or tomato sauce. And the ones in water, please! I can’t use bad words here!

Sardines are often referred to as poor people’s food and hidden beneath the bread and other items in the shopping cart because some don’t want people to know that they buy and eat sardines. Me? I am a proud sardine buyer and eater. You can always find a can of sardines in my cupboards.

But truth be told — on old year’s day (New Year’s Eve) when I went to the supermarket to pick up the sardines to make the food for this column, I was a little self-conscious as I stood in line with my cart only bearing cans of sardines, lemons, hot pepper and lettuce. I started to wonder if people were staring at my cart and taking pity on me that this would be all that I would have to eat for the New Year.

But then my good senses got hold of me as I thought about this column and I proudly placed my sardines on the counter in clear view for the banker in front of me to see, my head held high and shoulders erect.

When I was growing up we generally had sardines at breakfast time. We did not have it often and whenever we did, it was always like a treat, there never seemed to be enough to share among me and my siblings. Pat, my sister, or I would cut up onions, eschallots and some hot pepper, squeeze a bit of lime juice, adjust the salt and set about mashing the sardines with the ingredients with the back of a fork. We ate this with bread and big cups of tea.

Being the eldest, I always wanted to be the one to share/portion out the sardines not because I wanted the bigger portion but because I wanted to have my share in the same plate or bowl it was mashed in, that way, I could clean the bowl with my bread, you know, to catch all the little bits and stray juice from all the mixing.

As we got older, I noticed that mommy would make sardines sometimes for dinner, using the same mashed-method but this time, having it with roti. Because I’d only ever had sardines before with bread I was thinking that that was the only way it should be eaten, with bread; so when I tasted it with roti, it was a new wave of sardine love.

As a young teenager I went to one of our church’s famous tea parties and in addition to the regular cheese sandwiches, cakes etc. guess what was also on the menu — sardine sandwiches, oh yeah! These sandwiches were so good, the bread, soft, white and delicate, and the sardine mixture that bound the slices of bread together was creamy (from the added mayonnaise) and delicious. Go on, say it with me, “It was a new wave of sardine love.”

Once in a conversation with my friend Avril she recounted how, whilst on a visit in the United States, she satisfied her sister’s yearning for sardines. Avril said: “I cut up some onions, and fresh herbs and fry up the sardines. Then we ate it with some white rice and raw hot pepper, with our fingers of course!” By the time Avril had finished speaking, I knew exactly what I wanted for my meal that day! It was yet another wave of sardine love for me.

I like that the sardines are now in convenient flip-top cans, there’s no need to wrestle with a can opener and this method of opening the can means that one can have sardines anywhere. I noticed that they’ve updated the look also, my can (the one in oil) is no longer sliver with blue writing, and rather it is silver with gold and beige. And it no longer comes in just “oil” but soya oil or soybean oil.

My favourite way to have sardines is in a sandwich. And listen, you need pillowy-soft white bread that says: Yes, I’m here with my friends, sardines; never over-powering just firmly supportive.

Come on now, don’t be shy, you know you want some sardines right now. And especially after all the holiday food, your palette is long for something different. Don’t worry if you don’t have any at home, go get some and don’t bother if people are watching you judgementally as you stock up on sardines. Stare right back at them with an expression that says, “These are mine, go get your own!”

* Cynthia Nelson is a journalist, tutor, food photographer and author of the award-winning book: Tastes Like Home – My Caribbean Cookbook (IRP 2010). She writes regularly about food in various Caribbean Publications.





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