Sardinha Assada Na Brasa (Charcoal Grilled Sardines)

Nothing is more quintessentially Portuguese than grilled sardines.  Many will say codfish but I would argue that codfish is a protein that is prepared in numerous ways.  So no one will settle on the exact codfish dish that is the hallmark of Portuguese cuisine but everyone will agree that grilled sardines is uniquely Portuguese and is not only a staple of the cuisine but is also perhaps its defining hallmark.  The waters off the coast of Portugal are filled with sardines and they are still fished by teams of local fisherman who courageously risk their lives in small boats to catch these silver gems.  Most of the catch is sold right on the beach and the remainder is sold by travelling fish mongers (some on bicycle) in the surrounding towns.  This is still practiced in my family’s home town of  Murtosa on the Torreira beach.  Now before you engage in making this dish there are three important factors that you need to keep in mind: (1) the smell will stick to you and your clothes, (2) you must decide if you are going to gut the fish before grilling and (3) you must use a charcoal grill.  The smell: while it is an intoxicating wonderful aroma the olfactory memory will linger on your person.  This is because sardines are rich in fish oils that after cooking will impart a foul oder.  So close your windows  and don’t wear your Sunday best while making them.  To gut or not to gut…that is the question.  Traditionally the Portuguese do not gut or scale the fish.  It is grilled as is.  If however, the thought of eating the sardines au naturel seems unsavory then gut it and scrape off the soft scales.  I prefer it au naturel and I love it when I get a female with an engorged egg sac.  The egg sac is delicious and was highly fought over in my family every time we ate sardines.  Finally, a gas grill just won’t cut it because the process of cooking the sardines is enhanced by the juices leeching from the fish.  The interaction of the  juices with the coals envelops the fish and adds a nice smokiness to the dish.  A gas grill will not achieve this and furthermore you will never remove the smell and flavor post grilling from a propane fired grill.  I cook them unconventionally by placing a Weber stainless steel pain on the charcoal grates.  The problem with grilling sardines is  flare ups.  The juices coming off the sardines ignites the hot embers below.  The pan acts as a barrier and it makes turning them easy especially if you oil the pan.  Traditionally a fish grill clam grate is used where you place the fish inside and close the other end over the fish and then just turn the mechanism to grill both sides.  I find that the handle gets to hot to handle over time and when I remove the fish the contraption leaves these ugly lines in the fish and it sometimes peels away the delicate skin.  The Weber steel pan solves this and makes turning them over easy with the use of kitchen tongs. Portuguese sardines are typically sold frozen in Portuguese ethnic stores.  I have found that a good fish market will also carry them and I recently saw them for sale at my local ShopRite (a major supermarket chain in New Jersey).  You can also find them fresh Monday through Friday at fish markets in Portuguese neighborhoods.  When buying frozen look at the date on the package.  You want sardines that have been caught and flash frozen within a year.  Look for yellowing on the fish since this is a sign that they have gone rancid.  You want silver and white colors since this means that the oils in the fish have not started to turn.  I also look for plump fish since this means they will be juicy.  Sardines go on a feeding frenzy at key points in the year and during mating season.  The fatter they are the better.   The Weber Stainless Steal Grill Pan can be purchased be purchased from Amazon or your local Home Depot or Lowes.