Small fry

Little fish are tasty, fun, and good for you

September 23, 2008

On a recent stroll through Seattle’s Pike Place Market, I visited four fish counters. Tons of salmon and halibut fillets sat on the ice. I saw Dungeness crabs, Australian lobster tails, clams, and mussels, as well as farmed catfish and tilapia.

But nobody was selling any small fish, the kind of oily, delicious little fish enjoyed the world over. The kind we should all be eating more of, since they’re low in contaminants, high in good fats, and rarely overfished.

Taras Grescoe’s book Bottomfeeder is named for these low-on-the-food-chain fish, not to mention the people who eat them. To name names: sardines, anchovies, smelt, certain horse mackerel, herring, and whitebait.

Each of these common names can refer to many species of fish. But in the kitchen, small fish are largely interchangeable.

Whenever I see these fish on a restaurant menu, I order them, and I’m rarely disappointed; chefs love fish. But what about cooking them at home? Where do you buy them, and what do you do with them?

raw anchovies
Tiny anchovies are tasty and good for you.

Recently I watched a Seattle sushi chef, Taichi Kitamura of Chiso, prepare perfect pan-fried smelt. He dredged each fish in flour and fried them in canola oil, and they were crispy, indelicate (did I mention bones and all?), and juicy, bursting with roe. But I figured the chef got his fish through some wholesale channel.

A couple of weeks later, however, I was in my local supermarket and spotted the same Pacific smelt at the fish counter for $2 a pound. I bought a dollar’s worth and ate them for lunch — bones, head, tail, and all. They’re crunchy, but not creepily so — it’s a light crunch, akin to the subtle chew of a bigger-than-usual slice of eel in a sushi restaurant.

Delicious, fresh, local fish, every morsel edible from head to tail, and they’re only $2 a pound? (The same fish counter was selling wild salmon for $28 a pound.) I made fried smelt for the family, and my daughter gobbled them like fries. (I suppose you could eat fried smelt with a knife and fork, but I don’t see the point.) They’re great with tartar sauce or spicy mayonnaise.

I could eat these every day, but what else do you do with them? So I called up Kitamura and asked him.

“Salt it and let it sit; I like to let it sit for an hour. And then you grill them and you just serve them with a lemon wedge,” he said. “Or if you have a nice daikon radish, you can grate that and serve that grated daikon radish on the side of the grilled fish, maybe a little bit of soy sauce. Traditionally, most types of grilled fish are served with radish in Japan. People eat this for breakfast.” If you don’t have a grill, the broiler works well.

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Kitamura also suggested filleting the smelt or other fish. “You want to cut the head off with a knife, cut the belly open, and take the guts out,” he explained. Then you reach in and pull out the spine out through the belly with your fingers.

I tried this, and really, removing the head and guts and flipping out the spine was easy. The only downside is that you lose any delicious, creamy roe that might be lurking inside.

“Once you fillet them,” Kitamura continued, “you can bread them and deep-fry them. You can flour them and pan-fry them. Or you can even eat them raw.”

I knew he was going to say that.

“When you eat them raw, you want a skinless fillet,” he said, then paused, considering the fiddly annoyances of removing the soft, thin skin from the soft, fragile flesh of a fish that tops out at about four inches long. “Maybe we should skip that. Maybe not at home.”

Besides Japan, the other hotbed of small-fish consumption is the Iberian peninsula, so I put the question to Basque chef Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez, of Seattle’s Harvest Vine and Txori. His passion for the topic was palpable.

“They are all excellent in their own way,” he said. “For sardines, my personal opinion is: stuff it with piquillo peppers, foie gras, many things. Then flour, egg, and fry them.”

He also grills sardines a la plancha (on a metal griddle). Similarly, he stuffs and pan-fries a pair of butterflied anchovies, like a grilled sandwich with fish instead of bread. And he lightly cooks smelt and cures them with vinegar, garlic, parsley, and olive oil.

Most small fish are in season during the summer. If you want to know which fish are in season in your area, talk to a local fishmonger or sushi chef.

But season is irrelevant for some fish. “Herrings, I’ve never seen them available fresh, but they’re available frozen,” said Kitamura. “It’s very high in oil content, so even if it’s frozen it tastes very good. You can buy them at the local bait shop.”

Or at an Asian supermarket. Trolling the shelves at the Asian superstore Uwajimaya in Seattle, I found all sorts of appealing frozen fish, including smelt and herring, maxing out at about $5 a pound.

Small fish aren’t immune to overfishing. The Washington state smelt fishery has run into trouble in the past, though returns seem to be abundant this year. Anchovy populations have experienced severe crashes. Because the fish are harvested young, however, populations can recover more quickly. And unlike predatory fish, these little guys don’t accumulate toxins like mercury and PCBs.

Look, I know this is a hard sell, that I just told you to buy your dinner at a bait shop. Not everybody in my family likes fried smelt. But these fish are found at the busy intersection of delicious, environmentally sound, healthy, and cheap. They cook in minutes and stand up to strong seasonings. And they’re delicious cooked with Asian, Spanish, or even Mexican flavorings.

As Zarela Martinez serenades us in her book Zarela's Veracruz, “Knowledgeable diners from all over Veracruz (and farther away) crowd into informal thatched-roof eateries and simple hotel restaurants to devour . . . a little fish the size of a sardine called pepesca, still tinier fish such as tepotes and topotes . . ."

So you can keep your salmon. I’m having smelt and grated daikon for breakfast.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

There are 17 comments on this item
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1. by James Berry on Sep 24, 2008 at 6:28 AM PDT

Mathew: thanks! I’ve definitely got to try this. New tastes, local, and at a budget price: nothing fishy about that.

2. by Holly on Sep 24, 2008 at 9:15 AM PDT

Wow. I am so at war with myself about eating little fish with bones. On one hand--savoury, salty, oily=yum!!! On the other hand... bones?

Yes, I am a spoiled Midwestern white girl. Maybe I’ll try them at my Chinese teacher’s house first.

3. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Sep 24, 2008 at 11:13 AM PDT

Well, Holly, the good news is you could bring home, say, two of them and give it a try for about 27 cents.

4. by helenrennie on Sep 24, 2008 at 11:22 AM PDT

Hi Matthew,

Great story! You just made me really hungry for sardines :) I have a question. You seem to only mention gutting when you talk about filleting them. Do you mean you eat them with the guts when eating them whole? I haven’t tried that. I usually rub the scales off and gut them before cooking. Do the guts affect the taste? I haven’t cooked smelts in a long time, so maybe it’s different for them because they are so small, but would you do that with sardines too? Actually, how big are the west coast smelts roughly?


5. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Sep 24, 2008 at 12:24 PM PDT

Hi, Helen. When I cook smelt whole I just eat the guts. The fish I get are about 3 to 4 inches, maybe a bit more now near the end of the season. I would definitely gut sardines, although sometimes I see them sold already cleaned.

Also, I’m betting you know more about this topic than I do. I’m a newbie.

6. by jmdruadh on Sep 24, 2008 at 1:49 PM PDT

I LOVE little fish (bones, head & all). Grilled sardines are my favorite, although even good-quality canned ones can be pretty tasty. Try your fried smelts with malt vinegar: YUM! (I’ve only ever had them gutted, but that could be an east coast thing.)

7. by helenrennie on Sep 24, 2008 at 5:13 PM PDT

I don’t think I’ll ever learn everything there is to know about fish. For example, I picked up a really awesome fish grilling tip from Cook’s recently, and I learned that you can cook and eat the smelts whole, heads, guts, and all from you. Fish is also very regional. I can’t even recall if I’ve ever seen smelts with heads and guts around here. I think they are usually sold already cleaned, but I might be wrong because I don’t usually cook them. When I want small fish, I usually go for the fatty sardines and anchovies, so even I am guilty of discriminating against some fish. I am also not sure whether the east coast and west coast smelt is the same thing. So there is always more to learn, that’s why I am always so nosey :)


8. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Sep 24, 2008 at 6:06 PM PDT

The smelt I buy are labeled “dressed,” but I have no idea what this means. It sounds like it would mean the same as “cleaned” or “gutted,” but when I practiced filleting them, there was definitely something in there I would describe as guts.

9. by Kelly Myers on Sep 25, 2008 at 6:56 AM PDT

Matthew, You reminded me of my day at work last Friday. We got in sardines from Astoria (I’m in Portland). They were the freshest I’ve ever had and it was heaven on earth (okay, I like fish a lot). I turned them into a pasta sauce with saffron, pine nuts, raisins and fennel greens, but any preparation would have showcased these beauties. It was a good reminder that with little oily fishes, superfresh makes even more of a difference than with leaner fish. Oily fish start to smell fishy faster. Great article.

10. by kimmm on Sep 25, 2008 at 11:28 AM PDT

Smelts, yum. My parents used to dredge them in flour and deep fry huge batches. Really cheap, great food for lots of people. I loved them as a kid, your description of the light crispiness around a juicy inside is exactly the way I remember them.

Now I live in Denmark, where herring is a staple. It’s been uncool for a while, but is having a comeback as part of the Danes’ renewed interest in their culinary traditions. There’s no end to the ways this healthy, little oily fish is served - pickled. salted. pickled in curry sauce with apples. pan-fried. pickled and fried. pickled, fried and marinated in sweet and sour dressing...

11. by Caroline Cummins on Sep 25, 2008 at 5:09 PM PDT

I love pickled Scandinavian herring. It bums me out that I can’t find good versions of it Stateside. Suggestions for sources would be appreciated. (And yes, I’ve already tried IKEA, thanks.)

And, Matthew, do you have any suggestions for making Mediterranean-style marinated anchovies, the kind served cold as an appetizer?

12. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Sep 26, 2008 at 10:22 AM PDT

Not firsthand, Caroline. I’ve seen them for sale at Italian delis. What about something like <a href="”>this</a>?

13. by tagati on Jan 29, 2010 at 6:26 PM PST

Well i saw frozen smelt in the store, and people said you could eat them, but they use them as bait.
So I just brought them home, tiny fish, and defrosted them, and gutted them, as these were not fresh, came here to this page...and then dredged them in flour and fried them in red palm oil, added lime juice and salt and worchestershire...GREAT!!

14. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Jan 29, 2010 at 8:58 PM PST

Did you say red palm oil? Where did you get it and what else do you do with it?

15. by tagati on Jan 29, 2010 at 10:22 PM PST

Red Palm oil is a great alternative/change to olive oil. Use it as olive oil. It adds beautiful colour, and as an example these fish were yellow when cooked in the red oil.
Find it in the olive oil section, usually near the grape is all good. It is from Malaysia and that area of the planet.

16. by tagati on Jan 29, 2010 at 10:34 PM PST

Hey I googled Red Palm oil ...nutrition and interesting stuff,

17. by anonymous on Nov 27, 2012 at 2:20 PM PST

Does anyone out there know where to buy smelts in the Las Vegas area. It has been a tradition with my family (over 50years) to have them along with other seafood on Christmas Eve. They have been getting more and more difficult to find. I’m looking for those that are gutted and heads removed. I shake them in flour that has been seasoned, dip in egg wash and pan fry. Thanks, Sylvia

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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