What are Anchovies?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Anchovies are small, silvery-green fish in the family Engraulidae. They are found throughout the Mediterranean and along parts of the coastline of Southern Europe, sometimes ranging as far north as the base of Norway. These fish have been an important source of food for centuries, for both humans and marine life alike. They are available fresh in regions where they are heavily fished, and preserved all over the world. The distinctive flavor of the preserved fish can be tasted in many dishes, especially in Mediterranean cuisine.

Three fresh anchovies.
Three fresh anchovies.

Some people confuse anchovies with sardines, another silvery fish in the herring family. Sardines grow larger, range in different waters, and have different physical characteristics. Six anchovy species are widely harvested for food purposes, and all of them have characteristic gaping mouths, along with pointed snouts and green to blue bodies that flash silver underwater. They feed on plankton, and also act as a food source for larger fish. Their role in the food chain makes them an important fish species to preserve.

A platter of fried anchovies.
A platter of fried anchovies.

Like many fish in the herring group, anchovies live in large schools, groups of fish that can contain thousands of individuals. Both humans and birds look for these fish by seeking areas of disturbance on the surface of the water, which indicate a panicked school of fish trying to escape a predator.

Like many heavily fished species, anchovies are potentially at risk for serious decline. Several European nations have cooperated to institute limits on their catch, and to regulate the fishing industry to ensure that the fish are caught sustainably. Many fishing companies use large drag nets, which can pose environmental problems as they stir up the ocean floor. Some of these companies have voluntarily modified their fishing practices to ensure that fisheries will remain healthy.

When fresh, the fish have a mild, slightly oily flavor. They are very popular in both France and Italy, especially grilled. Preserved anchovies, typically packed in salt and oil, are also a staple food in many European countries and around the world. They can be extremely salty, so some consumers soak them in cold water for half an hour before consuming them, to draw out some of the salt. The fish is also available in the form of paste, a thick mixture made from ground fillets, vinegar, sugar, and spices.

Anchovies are highly popular around the Mediterranean, and feature prominently in that region's cuisine.
Anchovies are highly popular around the Mediterranean, and feature prominently in that region's cuisine.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I am a vegetarian and pretty strict about it. But I do allow myself one compromise. My favorite jarred pasta sauce contains anchovies. I am sure it is just a few but they are in there.

I don't feel great about it but I love this sauce so much. I never crave steak or chicken, but I know that if I gave up eating this sauce I would crave it like crazy. So I allow myself one little indulgence and hope that the vegetarian Gods don't mind too much.


Anchovies have been a traditional food in a lot of cultures for a long time. They were even eaten by the Ancient Romans 2000 years ago. We learned about it in classical studies. The Romans used to pack anchovies into jars and allow them to ferment. Basically, the fish went rotten and turned into a kind of paste that was then used as a flavoring.

I think it was probably an acquired taste!

But that makes it doubly sad if the anchovie stocks around the world are declining. It will disrupt the ecosystem as well as deprive people of a well love food type.

I hope they can be sensible about fish stocking rates. It is for everyone's benefit in the end, after all.


I can see why people would confuse anchovies for sardines as they do look a little bit similar.

But they taste completely different, especially when anchovies have been heavily salted. I personally prefer sardines, but they are both good in the right kind of meal.

They are both really healthy fish to eat, because they are both small enough that you can eat the whole thing.

Eating the tiny fish bones provides a lot of calcium and they are both oily fish which means they contain omega 3 oils. Omega 3s are incredibly good for you so you should eat as much of them as you can.


I love to order antipasti platters with olives, anchovies, sausages, breads and cheeses. This smorgasbord of Italian delights is usually as good or better than anything else on the menu. I also love to serve these as an appetizer at parties. It is a real crowd pleaser and it looks great on a platter.


There is a jarred pasta sauce that is my absolute favorite and is only sold in my town. It has a really distinctive flavor, I could never put my finger on what was the taste.

One day I was reading the ingredients label looking for anything out of the ordinary and then I noticed that it included anchovies. I tried making my own red sauce with anchovies included according to a recipe I found online and it tasted a lot like the jarred sauce. Anchovies are the secret ingredient.

My wife was actually horrified by this because she is a vegetarian and we have eaten gallons of this sauce together. Now we have to have 2 different jars, pone for her and pone for me.


I used to think that anchovies were so disgusting. I would see the reaction that characters would have to them in movies and I would think they were just a stinky fish that only crazy people like to eat.

Then I had anchovies that had been cooked into a pasta dish and I fell in love with them. I love the salty strong flavor that they have. I still can't eat the plain straight out of the can but I have been working them into a lot of my cooking. I even tried them on a pizza. Loved it!

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