Espetos. Grilled Sardines from Malaga

Espetos or Malaga grilled sardines are one of the simplest dishes of our local gastronomy in this part of Spain. And they are also one of the most demanded ones by locals and tourists.

Although you can find it all year long, it is said that they have a special taste from ‘Virgin to Virgin’– that means from the 16th of July (celebration of the “Virgen del Carmen”) until the 8th of September that honors the “Virgen de la Victoria”. Some extend this time frame to those months that do not include an “r” in their names: from May to August. What is clear, is that the summer months are ideal for having these skewers, because in that period the sardines are a little fatter, which increases their delicious flavor.

Malaga Grilled Sardines
Malaga Grilled Sardines

Espetos: Malaga Grilled Sardines

All of this, not forgetting the low price (for 2-6 Euros) and their great pairing with soft drinks or a glass of beer, sangria or an ice cold “tinto de verano” red wine, which makes the “espeto” a delicacy in any beach bar of the coast of Malaga. And if that was not enough, the sardine is very nutritious since it contains many proteins, vitamins and the famous omega-3 fatty acids.

The classic sardine skewer is very simple and comes from a technique invented in the late nineteenth century in the neighborhood of “El Palo” in Malaga, a tradition that has hardly changed ever since. It is made just with a few sardines that are grilled on a cane skewer over the heat of an open wood fire. Just like that. Keep in mind that you can also cook like this other types of fish (sea bass or bream, for example) and as well a tasty squid.

Sardine Cane Skewers
Sardine Cane Skewers

Espeto Sardines

However, in Malaga when speaking about “espeto”, it means speaking about sardines and in order to prepare them well, there are a few secrets that make this dish the favorite of many.

So one of the secrets shared with us by experts of preparing well espetos grilled sardines from Malaga, is to keep the sardines in ice water before skewer them is one of the first recommendations of the experts to keep the fish in top condition and to have resistance when introducing the cane. It is preferable to use medium sized sardines, since they have the best taste: the very large ones do not cook well and the small ones dry up very quickly.

The cane is the vegetal one that is obtained from the streams that overlook the sea, but sometimes some made of metal are used as well. On the other side, the fire, which is very commonly prepared in old boats filled with sand from the beach in Malaga, should be done with wood that consumes itself slowly and keeps a low flame,without excessive force. The use of olive wood, especially its root, is strongly recommended because of its slow combustion.

Malaga Grilled Sardines espetos
Espetos sardines

Art of Espetar

Once everything is ready, the most important moment comes: the art of “espetar”. You must introduce the cane in the back of the sardine, always below the spine, so that the fish will not fall off the skewer. And at the height of the gills. It would be ideal to stab about six sardines, but this depends on the size of them, since you must always cover the entire cane: if not, it will burn. In addition, the larger ones will be situated lower and the smaller ones on the top. And abundant salt is added to them, so that they absorb it well.

Malaga Grilled Sardines: Dish of fresh Espetos Sardines with half a lemon
Dish of fresh Espetos Sardines with half a lemon

The skewer is placed next to the wood with the cane stuck in the sand and separated a few centimeters and to windward (upwind), because otherwise the flames would burn the fish and the cane. It is the heat that does its work slowly and not the direct flame that might carbonize it. It just takes three to five minutes to cook the sardines; in fact, there are two details that allow us to know whether the espeto or Malaga grilled sardines is done to perfection: the eye becomes whitish and the tail ‘blonde’, so it burns a little and brightens its color. This is the moment when you have to turn it around so the backside roasts as well. And that’s it. Now you just need to get yourself a bit dirty: the skewer is eaten with the fingers, tearing bits of the delicious sardine meat off.

Bon Appetit!

About Pedro Sánchez de la Nieta


Born in Malaga, Southern Spain, Pedro has been working for more than a decade as a film an tv producer. Interested in sustainable tourism, local gastronomy and real food, he is one of the founders of Spain Food Sherpas, a food travel agency from Malaga that developed a new kind of service outside of the conventional tourist routes. The focus lies on autochthonous products and authentic experiences, where the factor “proximity” is crucial.  

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