Quick, Delicious and Economical Fast Fried Filipino Sardines

Quite by chance, the other day, I bumped into someone I used to go to university with. We hadn’t seen each other since graduating and that was quite some time ago. I’m not going to say how long ago; let’s just say that people at the time had just about got over worrying that the world’s infrastructure was about to collapse because computers couldn’t read calendars properly any more. My friend and I were catching up – families, jobs and all the usual stuff – and then she asked if I still ate my sardines “raw”.

She was referring to how we properly first met. Let me explain: we knew each other to look at and were probably aware of each other’s first names but hadn’t yet introduced ourselves. It was still early days in the first term of university and I was visiting someone who lived in a shared house with several Filipino students, one of which I was about to astound by eating sardines “raw” straight out of the tin.

Emptying the can onto a couple of slices of toast, I noticed that a trio of Filipino students were staring at me. Perhaps I’m remembering wrong but I’m sure one of them gasped when I put a fork full of sardines on toast into my mouth.

“She’s surprised that you’re eating raw sardines,” explained one of the students, one who would become a good friend and who I would bump into [ahem] years later in a chance meeting.

Of course, I wasn’t eating raw sardines. Canned or tinned sardines are cooked prior to packaging. If you choose to “cook” them, you are in fact just warming them up. It turns out that it is very rare for people in the Philippines (or at least the part where my new friend had come from) to not cook with their sardines. Consequently, these students simply assumed that the fish inside the can were raw and that I, in pouring the tin straight out onto my toast, was eating raw fish for lunch!

To be fair, I have met a few English people who think that sardines may be raw in the tin. This is, I think, for two reasons: firstly, these people don’t eat sardines so they are not used to them; secondly, tinned sardines do look a little like whole, uncooked, fish. People used only to eating tins of tuna or battered cod from the chip shop may think all fish that still looks like a fish is raw.

Back to the story. With the ice broken, we got chatting and my new friend shared with me how they usually “cook” tinned sardines where she’s from. I’ve been using this basic recipe ever since. It is so quick, simple and economical – not to mention delicious and satisfying – that there’s no reason not to have this meal once a week at least.

I’ll share the recipe that I follow and then offer some serving suggestions.

Filipino Fried Sardines in Spicy Tomato Sauce

In what follows, I’ll show you how much you’ll need for one portion. The process is so simple that it is worth getting a pan dirty cooking just for yourself. If cooking is anything like a hassle, either in preparation or due to the tidying up afterwards, I usually can’t be bothered if it’s just me eating, but in this case everything is so simple a little bit of washing up at the end isn’t too much trouble! To scale up, simply allow one can of sardines per person. With the onion and garlic, just use your judgement. The same goes for the chilli. It’s up to you how hot and spicy you like it.


For this recipe you will need:

(Serves one)

  • A tin of good quality sardines in tomato sauce
  • Half an onion
  • Two cloves of garlic
  • One habanero chilli (optional)
  • Vinegar (to taste)
  • Lemon juice (to taste)
  • Soy sauce (to taste)
  • Black pepper (to taste)

If you are using up sardines from your store cupboard that are not already in tomato sauce you can mix together two teaspoons of tomato puree with some water to thin it out and then add a squirt of tomato ketchup. For those that want things spicy but not too spicy, you can skip the habanero and replace it with a splash or two of Tabasco sauce. Alternatively, you can simply buy sardines that come in “spicy tomato sauce”. These typically are spicy in flavour rather than heat. And speaking of alternatives, if you are trying to use up store cupboard supplies and don’t have any sardines but do have some tinned mackerel, you can easily replace one for the other. The taste is different but nonetheless still delicious!

A note on tinned sardines. Generally speaking, you get what you pay for. You can buy the cheapest tins in the supermarket and this recipe will still taste great. However, I have found that the very cheap sardines tend to be a little smaller and break up very easily in the pan. There’s nothing drastically wrong with this – they’re going to break up in your mouth after all! But sardines look nicer and taste better (I think) when they maintain some of their shape.

This brings me on to the “controversial” topic of bones. Some people cannot get over the idea of eating sardine bones and want to pick them all out before eating. As a counterbalance there are others that will happily eat all the removed bones in one go after they’ve been picked out! Personally, I think it’s mostly psychological. Sardine bones are very small and soft; they seemingly disappear in this recipe. Remove the bones, by all means, but I genuinely feel it isn’t worth the effort because you won’t notice them after cooking and they do have health benefits. The soft bones add calcium to the meal. If you choose to remove the bones before cooking, the sardines are more likely to break down in the pan and form a paste, leaving the finished meal less visually appealing. The choice is yours.


  1. Dice the onion and transfer to a frying pan of hot oil. Fry for a couple of minutes.
  2. Add finely sliced habanero (if using) and cook for a minute or two.
  3. Add the garlic, finely minced, and cook until fragrant.
  4. Transfer your sardines from the tin to the pan being careful not to break them up into a paste.
  5. Add lemon juice and soy sauce to taste. You can also add a little bit of water at this stage if you like.
  6. Once the food is piping hot and ready to come off the heat, add the vinegar and pepper to taste.

Your Filipino sardines are ready to be served. But, you may ask, what with?


I’m going to share five serving suggestions with you. One of which, you may find very surprising! You’ll either take the suggestion onboard as a game-changer or respond with a swift “Nope!”. In this case, my reply will be, try it – at least once. But before all that, some simple suggestions.

  • A thick slice of crusty white bread. Can be toasted or not, perfect for mopping up the sauce. Lovely.
  • A portion of fluffy white rice (preferably flavoured with garlic). Hearty, filling and comforting. Great for a midweek evening meal.
  • With two crispy fried eggs. The key here is to get the edges of the eggs as crispy as you can without overcooking them. Consider adding one egg if you’re having your sardines on rice for supper to bulk up the meal.
  • Fried potatoes of some sort. This can be regular chips, fries or parmentier potatoes, perhaps even some patatas bravas. Lovely with reheated leftover roasties. Hey, add a crispy fried egg while you’re at it – delicious!
  • Oatmeal or porridge – wait… what???

OK, hear me out. Savoury oatmeal or porridge recipes are not well-known in the West. Perhaps, they are not that well-known in the East either, I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that they are delicious and you are missing out if you neglect to try them – at least once!

For this recipe, simply prepare your oatmeal as usual but perhaps with a little less liquid (in addition, when cooking savoury oatmeal I use a 1:1 ration of milk and water). Then treat the porridge as if it were cooked rice. Trust me. Try it.