555, Ligo, Uni-Pak, and More: 10 Brands of Canned Sardines in Tomato SauceOctober 18, 2019
Step aside, canned meats. On this taste test, we moved along the ready-to-eat food aisle to canned sardines. After capture, these long, tiny, silver fish (from the herring family Clupeidae) are immediately submerged in brine. They’re transported to the cannery, where they’re cleaned, cut, then cooked before being packaged. They’re usually stored in oil; but most easily available—and cheap—canned sardines come in tomato sauce (often made of tomato paste, water, cornstarch, and salt). How do the different brands compare?
555’s bright red tomato sauce is thick and salty, with a weird spiciness that disappears almost instantly. The fish is tender, and doesn’t break apart easily. A member of the team describes it as “semi-smooshy, but firm.” Sadly, there’s barely enough of the sardines. It seemed like there was only one tiny piece of fish that was cut into strips.
Atami is the cheapest of the selection at only PHP14.40. It’s tomato sauce is pale and watery; and it doesn’t really taste like anything. The sardines actually tasted more like tomato than the sauce did, which we don’t really understand. Over-all, though, everything lacked salt. The pieces of fish were thinner and smaller than 555’s, and disintegrated easily.
Family’s is manufactured by Universal Canning, Inc.—the same company that makes Atami. At first sight, it looks (if we’re being honest) disgusting. There was a lot of fish, but most of it were already in broken pieces. There was also a weird, thin film of pale liquid on top of the tomato sauce. However, it did have some herb-y notes that we quite enjoyed. “It doesn’t taste like just tomato sauce; it’s like [they put some thought into the mixture.]”
Hakone’s tomato sauce has a jelly-like texture. However, it tastes more natural than the others—like it was made with real tomatoes. (Disclaimer: They used tomato paste just like the others.) The fish were plump, and you could distinguish the individual pieces. It had a nice texture similar to freshly cooked fish. It also had a sweetness to it, making it taste the fresher than most.
The texture of Ligo’s sardines wasn’t bad. It was chunky, and didn’t fall apart too easily; but it was very mushy. It also had an odd flavor that made it taste like something other than fish (a kind of meat, maybe?). Its tomato sauce had a watery consistency, which translated to taste, as well. The flavor’s there for a nano-second, then goes very quickly.
Master is another brand under Universal Canning, Inc. That said, it’s much more similar to Ligo than it’s sisters Atami and Family’s. Its sauce is thin and watery; more like tomato water than tomato sauce. Although we’d argue that this has more flavor, it also disappears in a snap, so it doesn’t really win any points. The sardines were also too soft for our liking.
We have a lot to say about Rose Bowl’s fish—and they’re all good. There were only three pieces, but they were huge and distinguishable. They were all intact, and they were the flakiest of the lot. “It’s the most realistic fish,” one of us points out; there were even some roe in the can. This was so close to winning us over, if not for the funky tomato sauce. It didn’t taste like the others… in a bad way. The can says that its “packaged for trademark owner” in California, USA. So we suspect that the formula might have been altered to cater to Western palates.
Rose Bowl Gold
Rose Bowl’s gold variant is the most expensive of the bunch at PHP27. It has the same premium fish, just a tad mushier. The sauce is delicious, with a good balance of sweetness and saltiness. It “tastes like [what] it’s supposed to taste like,” which means that it lives up to our standards—and sets the bar for all the other canned sardines.
Saba’s tomato sauce is on the sweeter side, which doesn’t make us mad at all. And that’s good, since the flavor stays on your tongue longer than the other brands. The pieces of sardines are big and there’s an ample amount of them in the can. They’re tender and sweet, like Hakone’s. Plus, you get more out of it because they’re cut until the very thin part of the fish’s tail-end.
Uni-Pak’s sauce had a great thickness, but “nawawala yung lasa (the flavor disappears).” It’s like watered down tomato juice; and we weren’t really fans. And we don’t know if this was a fluke, but our can’s fish weren’t de-scaled properly. Some of our team member had to wash out their mouths because they were “choking” (this may have been an exaggeration) from all the scales that were still there.
The Verdict: Saba
Saba’s palatable tomato sauce and plentiful fish ratio makes it the one we’d choose to stock in our pantry. It came as a surprise to us, actually, since most of us weren’t familiar with the brand in the first place. It’s mid-price point helped push it to the top of our list. Rose Bowl Gold comes in second, and at the bottom of our list swims watery Atami and scaly Uni-pak.