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‘Tinned fish date night’ is TikTok’s latest trend. Here’s how to do it.

Nov 05, 2023

Tinned fish — sardines, anchovies, mackerel and the like, all packed in oil — have swum their way upstream to become, improbably, the darling of online food culture. They’ve even been dubbed "hot girl food," epitomizing a certain strain of gastronomical insouciance along with the kind photogenic spectacle that social media loves.

The latest wave for these briny sea creatures is the phenomenon, popular on TikTok, of "tinned fish date night," which is exactly what it sounds like: You and your partner crack open a few tins (bonus points if you place them on a camera-ready rustic wooden board), surround them with a few accoutrements and then dig in, layering your goodies on bits of crusty bread or crackers.

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Ali Hooke, the San Francisco chef who kicked off the trend last summer, says she was surprised that her first videos documenting the impromptu meal she and her husband shared took off so wildly, garnering hundreds of thousands of likes — along with plenty of copycats inspired by their feasts. "I don't have a clue why it's working, but it's fun," she says.

Hooke thinks part of the appeal is that it's accessible; no matter how unskilled they are in the kitchen, anyone can open a can. And she thinks people enjoy meals that are an experience: On tinned fish date nights, you’re combining an assortment of foods into little bites, and part of the fun, she says, is finding the pairings you like best. "It's like going bowling or something," she says. "With fish."

Sara Hauman, a former "Top Chef" contestant who founded the canned-seafood purveyor Tiny Fish Co., also thinks it offers couples — or friends! (tinned fish date night is not necessarily a pure romance play, she notes) — a chance to linger over a meal, as many people do in countries where tinned fish has long been a pantry staple. "You feel Mediterranean and European when you have tinned fish date night," Hauman says. "It transports you to a different place."

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As far as dates go, it's relatively cheap. While you can buy pricey tins at specialty shops, and the accompaniments you choose might also push up the cost, the tab is still probably far less than your bill would be at a restaurant, especially these days — and there aren't any dishes to wash at the end of the evening.

I asked Hauman and Hooke for their top tips for the seacuterie-curious, or for anyone wanting to upgrade their game.

There's no need to go overboard, especially if you’re just trying things out. Hauman thinks three options make for a good spread: something straightforward, something highly seasoned (maybe something smoked, or tins that are flavored with lemon, hot peppers or mustard) and a "wild card" (maybe tonight's your night to sample octopus?).

Crusty bread is a great accompaniment, both agree. And a soft, mild cheese — even a cream cheese — goes well with many of the sharp, salty flavors in your tins.

Anything pickled — carrots, beets or beans — is a natural choice, offering an acidic counterpoint to the richness of the oils. Hooke likes pickled mustard seeds for their "textural contrast." Both noted that experimenting is the point of TFDN, so it's best not to overthink things. "Potato chips are great," Hooke says. "People like Doritos with it. It's whatever you like."

Hauman particularly likes a bubbly wine, and while whites and rosés are an expected pairing, she says a chilled, lighter-bodied red would work, too. Hooke likes natural wines, which she says offer a "funk" that goes well with the umami-heavy spread, or a dirty martini, whose saltiness is echoed in the meal.

Canned seafood is divisive, and not everyone is on board, at least immediately. But the haters might have a bad association with watery tuna salads of their childhoods, or they just may not be familiar with the wide (and getting wider) world of canned options. Someone who wants to dip their toes in the water might want to start out with a tinned seafood that has a strong flavor added to it as a gateway to "fishier" options.

Hauman suggests that tentative tasters should visit a specialty store and browse, since many options come in attractive packaging. "We eat with our eyes first," she says. "And shopping can make you feel like this is a fancy experience." And Hooke counsels "exposure therapy" — which, given the popularity on Instagram and TikTok, isn't so hard to do. "They’ll get desensitized to it," she says. "The more you watch, the more familiar and less freaky it will seem."