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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29 thoughts on “Pan-Fried Mackerel (or Sardines) with Spicy Tomato Sauce”

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    1. For those that cant’ find whole mackerel I’m betting a quick and dirty version could be made with canned jack mackerel and a can of Rotell tomatoes with additional spices added.

  1. Recipe sounds tasty, but that photo…it looks like the fish heads exploded into a mass of red goo.

    1. I’m with Sue – too much like blood pouring out of the severed head-ends!

      (But recipe looks great – I will try it, but will pour the sauce differently 🙂 )

      1. I always scoff at these “eww, blood!” comments when I see them, but I’ve come to realize it’s most likely how I was raised. Growing up I always had to gut my own fish after I caught them, so I was always like “gross!” at the time as a 5-year-old, but then also kinda thought it was weird

  2. Yum! Absolutely yum! I had sprats for breakfast this morning and I have some left over … spicy tomato sauce, it is.

    My preference is to leave the heads on and the guts in.

  3. I went to the doctor for my annual physical last week and was surprised to discover he is paleo himself, also his wife and kids! Was that ever great! And we spent a lot of time talking about eating sardines and mackerel, so this is timely. I mostly just eat them plain, but I can be persuaded to try them with this spicy sauce. Sounds great!

  4. Great will defiantly try this.
    Oh and good job on the metric conversions, i’ve been meaning to comment about that for a while.

    1. I just noticed the metric! I should’ve noticed that about 2 furlongs ago!

      (Yeah, I know, “furlong” is a distance measurement. I should probably write ‘tenth of a score’ or something.) 🙂

  5. Looks quite nice! Should be a good way to get the young’uns to try the wee fishies.

  6. My aversion to fish seems to only be getting stronger, the longer I stay away from seafood (except for lobster or scallops). After I poisoned myself and/or gave myself some sort of allergy over a ~5 month period last year I at first didn’t really feel averse to seafood although my intake was quite reduced only b/c I was focusing on eating stuff that would make me feel better/recover. Over the months, I desired seafood less and less with white fish particularly giving me a repulsive reaction in July (a little more than 6 months since I had the issue/poisoning/allergy). Since then, it seems even if I think about certain seafoods I feel nauseous. Even salmon I start to think ill of it, even though I did not feel ‘affected’ by salmon (my desire for salmon, that is).

    People, make sure not to give yourself an allergy. lol (Although I never had any recognized allergy to seafood in the past, thus was making me think it was b/c it was from China. The constant eating of it over several months surely contributed—ie. dose dependent). I might have ruined a good thing for myself though. lol I wonder how long, if ever I will have the same view on seafood again. 😛 haha.

    1. Food aversions and food allergies are two completely different things; which was it? It sounds like a case of food poisoning which resulted in an aversion to certain types of seafood.

  7. I just had sardines and tomato sauce over spaghetti squash for dinner yesterday. I just used canned sardines in olive oil and jarred Costco sauce but it was still great. Next time I will add some of these spices to the Costco sauce as I may not get around to making it from scratch. I’m still celebrating the fact that I no longer eat stuff from boxes. Maybe next year I will replace jarred stuff with homemade. Right now I’m working on replacing canned soups with homemade broth made in the slow cooker. Found the recipe for that on the Stir it Up blog and will never make it the old way again. The only problem is eating enough whole chickens to make all the soup I want. I may have to start asking for donated chicken carcasses from friends

  8. Pamela
    You can usually get frozen organic chicken bones from your butcher. Very reasonable and great to add to the crockpot!

  9. I found whole sardines in the grocery store a while ago, and they’ve just been sitting in my freezer waiting for me to figure out how to make them. This answers that!

  10. Wow.., it is dinner time, and my mouth water could not stopping….,
    I probably won’t be able to try that out today, but it will be my weekend dish! Finger crossed….


  11. Dear Mark,
    We absolutely love this dish. It comes out awesome every time.
    It really makes us feel like we are in an exotic mediterrean location when we eat it.

    I get whole wild sardines online (Wholey’s seafood) and even if I don’t have all the ingredients, it turns out wonderful. (sometimes I might not have fresh herbs or I have to use an onion instead of a shallot or I have lime instead of a lemon today).

    Thank you!

  12. Hello!
    Oh sounds Delicious!
    I had sprats for breakfast this morning and I have some left over … spicy tomato sauce, it is.

    My preference is to leave the heads on and the guts in.