How small fish packs a big punch across the globe

anchovies drying in sun
Photo: CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN / Contributor (Getty Images)

Shakuntala Thilsted, winner of this year’s World Food Prize, wants you to know something: small fish like herring, anchovies, and sardines, are a superfood. Not only are they good at fighting malnutrition, preventing stunted growth, and promoting cognitive development in children, they’re also great for pregnant women. NPR interviewed Thilsted about how and why small fish can make such a big impact, especially in places like Bangladesh and Cambodia, where some people already have small ponds in their backyards.

Advertisement

Currently based out of Penang, Malaysia, Thilsted is the global lead for nutrition and public health at WorldFish, a group that works to advance aquatic food systems. She is the first woman of Asian descent to win the World Food Prize.

Small fish, Thilsted said, are more accessible to the poor. They don’t fetch high prices like larger species, like carp, for example. If someone in Bangladesh— where most people already have backyard ponds—cultivates small fish, they can be conveniently be harvested and cooked, even daily.

According to Thilsted, the most nutritious way to eat small fish is to eat it whole: head, bones, and all. Entire fish can be ground into fish powder, which can be kept for long periods of time. “In Malawi, Zambia, Sierra Leone, where I work, families have mortars and pestles in their kitchens that they use to roast the fish and pound it,” she said. “And when you have fish powder, you can keep it for months.”

Small fish are also safe for pregnant women, Thilsted said: “Small fish have a much shorter lifespan than large fish and therefore have less chance of concentrating heavy metal contaminants—making them a safer option for pregnant women and lactating mothers.” If they’re farmed in someone’s backyard, that reduces the risk of contamination even further.

Of course, some of you are wondering how it tastes. “Depending on where you are, it will be prepared differently to fit local tastes and desires. It is often mixed with spices. For example, in Bangladesh with turmeric,” she said.

This is a pretty in-depth interview, and it’s interesting to see what Thilsted has to say about just how small fish and its global impact, so if you’ve got some time today I highly recommend you read it over a nice snack of sardines and crackers, just like I did.

Advertisement

Staff writer at The Takeout. Also: Saveur Humor Blog Award Winner, professional pizza maker, and insufferable troublemaker.

DISCUSSION

brickhardmeat
Brick HardMeat

Having moved to the West Coast, with its abundance of seafood, there’s one thing I can’t get out here that I used to get on the East Coast and just cannot find: fresh sardines. I really miss grilling sardines whole, nice and simple with salt, olive oil, and lemon. Likewise, I can’t seem to find fresh anchovies to make boquerones.