The Happy Home Cook: Sardines in Spicy Tomato Sauce

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Sardines in spicy tomato sauce (Source: The Adobo Road Cookbook)

Sardines in spicy tomato sauce (Source: The Adobo Road Cookbook)

From Marvin Gapultos' book The Adobo Road Cookbook.

For some Filipinos, myself included, a can of sardines in tomato sauce can qualify as comfort food. In fact, many of my dinners as a college student and bachelor consisted of canned sardines from the Philippines heated through in a skillet and then dumped on a pile of rice.

Although I have fond memories of those simple dinners, I’ve found that I can easily replicate them not by opening a can, but by using fresh ingredients instead.

Fresh sardines are inexpensive, sustainable, and are becoming easier to find as they rise in popularity – though they are easiest to find in Asian markets. The sardines can simply be placed atop a freshly made sauce of tomato paste, white wine, and cherry tomatoes, and then quickly finished underneath the broiler. Despite my love of canned sardines, I’ve not opened a single tin since making this recipe.

Serves 4-6
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 35 minutes

2 tablespoons, plus 3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large shallots, minced (2 tablespoons)
4 cloves garlic, minced (1 tablespoon)
½ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika or regular paprika
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 lb (500 g) cherry tomatoes, halved
½ cup (125 ml) white wine
¼ cup (65 ml) water
1 tablespoon fish sauce
8-10 small sardines, about 1 lb (500 g) cleaned and gutted
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh calamansi juice, or fresh lemon juice
Fresh calamansi limes, or fresh lemon wedges, for squeezing over sardines


Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large oven-proof saute pan over moderately high heat. Add the shallot, garlic, dried red pepper flakes, and paprika and cook until the shallot becomes soft and translucent, 3-5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir to combine, continuing to cook until the tomato paste just begins to brown, 1 minute more.

Toss the cherry tomatoes into the pan and saute until the tomatoes soften and have released some of their juices, 5-7 minutes.

Pour the wine into the pan, stirring to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the water and fish sauce and simmer until the liquid reduces and thickens a bit, about 5 minutes more. Remove heat and set aside.

Season the sardines inside and out, with the salt and black pepper. In a large bowl, whisk together the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil with the calamansi (or lemon) juice. Using your hands, toss the sardines in the olive oil and citrus mixture, making sure the mixture dressed the fish inside and out.

Place an oven rack in the closest position to the broiler and turn the broiler on high heat.

Remove the sardines from the bowl and arrange them in a single layer on top of the tomato sauce in the saute pan. Place the pan underneath the broiler and broil for 10-12 minutes, flipping the fish over once. The sardines are ready when the skin is nicely browned and crisped, and the thickest part of the fish easily flakes from the tip of a knife.

Served with steamed white rice and calamansi limes, or lemon wedges, on the side for squeezing over the fish.

Marvin Gapultos

Marvin Gapultos

Marvin Gapultos is the author of the celebrated food blog, Burnt Lumpia (, and was the founder of Los Angeles’ first gourmet Filipino food truck, The Manila Machine. His first cookbook entitled, "The Adobo Road Cookbook: A Filipino Food Journey--From Food Blog, to Food Truck, and Beyond" is available for sale at Barnes and Noble bookstores, as well as from Amazon. Check out his Amazon site:

More recipes from Marvin Gapultos