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?
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.
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 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.
Want more? Comb the archives.
Most of the time with cooking and eating, the rules are clear.
A father’s legacy
The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more
Good on everything