Pan-Fried Mackerel (or Sardines) with Spicy Tomato Sauce

Pan-Fried MackerelThe bold flavor of mackerel (or sardines) is an asset in this dish, pairing perfectly with an equally bold tomato sauce that’s spicy, garlicky and richly seasoned with cumin, coriander, paprika and cinnamon.

If the fishy flavor or oiliness of mackerel and sardines puts you off then acidity, herbs and spices are the way to go. The acidic lemon and herb marinade in this recipe will mellow both the oiliness and the fishy flavor. Tomatoes add more acidity to the dish and there is no shortage of spices in the sauce.

Learning to love mackerel and sardines – or if you already love them, learning to eat them more often – is worth it. High levels of healthy omega-3 fats and low mercury levels make these little swimmers the perfect fish to consume. Plus, both are affordable and really easy to cook.

Deep-fry, pan-fry, broil or grill the fillets for just a few minutes and the flesh will be moist, almost creamy, with a crispy, salty layer of skin on the outside. If you’re not up for cooking fresh mackerel and sardines, all is not lost. This tomato sauce is pretty great with canned fish too.

Servings: 2

Time in the Kitchen: 1 hour



  • 1 pound fresh mackerel or sardines, cleaned (see below)


  • 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil (30 ml)
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro (60 ml)
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley (60 ml)
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint (60 ml)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander (2.5 ml)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin (2.5 ml)

Tomato Sauce

  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1 small shallot, roughly chopped
  • 1 serrano or jalapeno pepper roughly chopped
  • 1 teaspoon paprika (5 ml)
  • 1 teaspoon cumin (5 ml)
  • 1 teaspoon coriander (5 ml)
  • 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon (a pinch)
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro (15 ml)
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, split (60 ml)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste (30 ml)
  • 1/4 cup water (60 ml)
  • 4 tomatoes, chopped


Sardines can be eaten whole with the guts, bones and head intact, if you like. Mackerel usually taste better if cleaned and must be boned. You can ask the fishmonger to clean and bone the fish for you (if you want the head left on, make sure to tell them) or do it yourself.

Raw Mackerel

If removing the head, use a knife or scissors to lop it off just behind the gills. Next, cut along the belly and open the fish. Scrape out the innards. Turn the mackerel over so the skin faces up. Push down along the center of the fish to pop the backbone out. Turn the fish over and use your fingers or a sharp knife to carefully lift the backbone away from the flesh. Remove any small, loose bones that remain.

Mix together the marinade ingredients: garlic, lemon, olive oil, cilantro, parsley, mint, coriander and cumin. Cover the fish evenly with the marinade. Marinate 30 minutes at room temperature.


While the fish is marinating, make the tomato sauce. Using a food processor, blend the garlic, shallot, hot pepper, paprika, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cilantro and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into a paste.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the spice paste. Heat and stir for a few minutes then add the tomato paste.

Tomato Sauce

Stir constantly for about 30 seconds then add the water. Stir to blend then add the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Simmer 10 minutes. Season to taste with sea salt.

Tomato Sauce

While the tomato sauce simmers, scrape most of the marinade off the fish. Pat the fish dry and lightly salt.

Pour a thin layer of olive oil or coconut oil in a large cast iron frying pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, fry the fish in batches, about 2 minutes per side.

To flip, carefully work a wide offset spatula under the fish, trying to keep the skin intact, and turn the fish, cooking it for 2 to 3 minutes more on the second side.

Frying Fish

If the skin peels off, don’t worry. Just let the torn skin crisp up in the pan then serve the pieces of crispy skin alongside the cooked fish. Might not look as pretty, but it will still taste great.

Transfer the fish to plates, spoon tomato sauce on top and garnish with fresh herbs.

Pan-Fried Mackerel

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